Human Resources

Designing for Mindfulness, Mental Health and Neurodiversity in the Workplace

Published 13 February 2020



Kay Sargent

Senior Principal | Director of WorkPlace


It's getting harder to focus, concentrate, and to think at work. There seems to be no relief from noisy co-workers, visual distractions, and the constant “pinging” of our technology, all of which are adversely impacting our ability to concentrate or thrive. In a workforce study, Willis Towers Watson [1] found that the number one lifestyle risk impacting the workforce today is stress. But it is also the factor that we pay the least attention to. Mental health is also one of the greatest threats to public health, according to the World Health Organization, and it is noted that 1 in 4 people are likely to have a mental health challenge at some point in their life.

The drivers of mental health include socioeconomic, biological and environmental factors such as work conditions, lifestyle and health behaviors, nutrition, and genetics. There is growing research to suggest that some neurological conditions such as ASD will cause the individual to have a stronger predisposition, when compared to neurotypicals, to suffer from anxiety and depression. It is for this reason that while neurodiversity and mental health are different things, they should be thought about together on a contextual basis.

Thanks to advances in science and technology and a better understand of human mind and body, there is an increased awareness about ADHD, Dyslexia, Autism and other neurological states. In fact, 1 in 8 people are considered neurodiverse, but despite the increased awareness fewer than 50% who are neurodivergent know it. People who are neurodiverse are wired differently, but that difference can be a superpower. Neurodiverse thinkers often possess exceptional talents such as hyper focus and problem-solving abilities; the ability to think out of the box and to be bold problem solvers; or the ability to excel in a crisis. But navigating the modern workplace can be a challenge.

Despite the impact that stress and mental health has, the global spend on mental health alone is less than $2 USD per person. [2] Treatments for depression and anxiety are vastly underutilized. In high-income countries with well-established healthcare systems, 35–50% of people living with mental illness receive no treatment. In low- to middle-income countries, upwards of 76–85% of people living with mental illness do not receive treatment.[3]

We must strive to achieve a work environment and culture that supports neurodivergents and those that might have mental health challenges. To do so, we must create workplace cultures and environments that enable all people to feel welcome and safe. We must strive to acknowledge their differences in a positive way, accept them for who they are and provide spaces where they can thrive. To this end, it’s important to design a workplace that provides a variety of options to enable users to find a space that fits their specific needs. All aspects of the space—color, lighting, materiality, elements in the field of view, and sensory stimuli—need to be designed with purpose and intent. We need to provide optimal ranges of temperature, lighting, air quality, noise, ergonomics, and a sense of comfort and security while additionally providing views to the outdoors, high ceilings, and areas for focus and concentration to minimize distractions and mitigate sensory stimulation. We also need to address the needs of hyposensitive individuals to allow for movement and areas for stimulation.

The built environment can serve as a powerful tool to help reduce the adverse effects of stress, burnout, and anxiety in the workplace and enable neurodivergents to truly feel welcome and thrive. We must work to improve our understanding of mental health and neurological differences. Better understanding will lead to reducing the stigma around these issues and improving our ability to address them. After all, there is certainly a compelling business case to be made for ensuring that our approach to the design of workplaces is inclusive because it’s good for business—but it’s also simply the right thing to do.



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