Friday, 1 March 2013

Fitting the office to our evolutionary niche

Imagine a workplace in harmony with our true nature. That's the aspiration held out by Carey Fitzgerald and Kimberley Danner in a recent paper surveying insights from environmental and evolutionary psychology and considering what they say about our work environments. The fundamental observation from which all else follows is that we are creatures evolved to live a life substantially in touch with nature and our own natural patterns. The workplace? Commonly, not so much...

Take greenery. There is evidence that exposure to natural environments improves our quality of life; for instance, jogging in a park is more effective than urban jogging for lowering anxiety and depression. In a workplace, this could translate to the presence of plants, and studies have shown that their presence can improve concentration and remove stress, presumably owing to their contributions to air quality as well as their immediate sensory effects. Similarly, access to windows is nigh-universally prized by workers.

Most workplaces, especially white collar ones, are sedentary environments that contrast with the lifestyles our species developed to cope with. One recent response to this within workplaces has been permitting or encouraging standing desks, which can make a substantial difference to health through upping 'non exercise activity thermogenesis' - the energy you burn off just through daily activities. Other approaches can include building opportunities to exercise, which if taken outdoors could kill two birds with one stone, something our ancestors were presumably more accomplished in than we were.

If we're going to be more permissive with working habits, how about allowing a nap? Inadequate sleep can impact motor skills, insight formation and language perception, and is a product of demanding environments that call for thinking, planning and anticipation, which constitute the bulk of workplaces. But we have a natural escape valve from overtiredness, and it's not sold at Starbucks. A short afternoon sleep is a feature of cultures worldwide, and is more effective than caffeine at improving performance in areas like motor and verbal tasks. It seems likely that napping is a feature of our circadian rhythms: it's a natural way to operate, not just a byproduct of a heavy lunch. 1/3 of surveyed workplaces say they would be ok with napping, but only 16% had provision for it, and only 10% of employees say they had done so at work, despite 48% napping in the last month (presumably on their own time).

Finally, Fitzgerald and Danner discuss the social factor of human existence. This is something better acknowledged within organisations - conflicts hurt wellbeing and performance, social support can buffer against stress - but what I found notable was a consideration of non-human companions. Bringing a pet to work can reduce your own stress, and a dog in the office can facilitate group cohesion, cooperation and trust.

If we're serious about wellbeing, engagement, and the better workplace, then these cornerstones of a life led adequately - light, air, movement, sleep and companionship - are things that organisations have got to put in place.

ResearchBlogging.orgFitzgerald CJ, & Danner KM (2012). Evolution in the office: how evolutionary psychology can increase employee health, happiness, and productivity. Evolutionary psychology : an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 10 (5), 770-81 PMID: 23253786
Further reading:
See the Psychologist article (and mp3 audio) where Craig Knight discusses environmental design - link here


  1. Based on this paper, would the ideal job be hunting moose and gathering berries...?

  2. Hi Neuroskeptic

    I don't know about 'the ideal job' - I don't think anyone does, thanks to the individual differences that exist in our capabilities, interests and motivations. However, this doesn't condemn us to a relativist position where different strokes are for different folks. Hunting moose probably wouldn't be satisfying if you derive satisfaction from conceptual activities, have physical disabilities that would limit your ability to endure sustained exertion, or if you subscribe to an ethics that frowns upon killing or eating other animals. However, many of the features of moose hunting do indeed seem to line up with how our bodies and minds operate in aggregate. The article is making the relatively modest claim that if we pay attention to these features we can make workplaces better.

    Thankfully this paper doesn't cleave particularly strongly to the Human nativist evolutionary psychology framework; see Heyes (2003) for a useful introduction and critique of this.

    Essentially it's the popularly promoted Cosmides/Tooby account that seeks to link cognition to domain-specific modules developed across a fixed era of human experience. Instead, this article involves evolutionary psychology in the much weaker, and in my view more fruitful sense, of taking into account our animal origins in order to pay attention to environmental features that may be problematic in their poor fit. Don't forget we're whole beings, it's reminding us, not merely brains (even brains with eyes on!).


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