How to improve your workspace
Do sore eyes and throat, dry skin, mental fatigue, headaches, coughing and wheezing sound familiar? If you work in an office or building that has low circulation, mass air-conditioning, no natural light and computers on every desk, you’ll most likely know these symptoms intimately. It’s simply part of working in a modern world. Most of our buildings are unhealthy and are not only making it difficult to be productive but affecting our overall health and wellbeing.
According to Mark Bunn, natural health coach specialising in Maharishi Ayurvedic medicine and author of Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health, the environment we work in has an enormous role in our health and wellbeing. “The best way we can improve our work environments, and therefore our own health and productivity, is to figure out how to bring the natural elements into our offices.” That means bringing the five fundamental elements of Ayurveda — space, air, fire, water and earth — into your workplace. It’s through balancing these elements that you can begin to reverse the damage these unhealthy environments have on your mind and body.
Space — clutter and direction
A cluttered workspace means a cluttered mind. In Ayurveda, it is clearly stated that we don’t just metabolise what we eat, we metabolise everything we experience through our senses. Put simply, a messy environment influences the way we think and behave. “When our bodily channels become blocked, we become physically sick,” says Bunn. “When our personal space becomes blocked or cluttered, we can also become physically sick.” Therefore, the first thing Bunn suggests to improve your workplace and your health is to clear the space around you. When you are physically cramped or your living space is full of “junk”, you can feel stressed and lack creativity.
“Ancient cultures had a ceremony called ‘space clearing’, where they would actually clear the space around them and reconfigure it to start afresh,” Bunn says. These space-clearing ceremonies have been performed as an integral part of life among people from the Celtics to the Tibetan Buddhists through to Native American tribes.
Once you’ve cleared your area of anything old, unwanted and messy, Bunn also suggests considering which way your desk faces. The very latest research in the field of neuroscience has found that facing a certain direction is critical for integrated brain functioning and maximum mental performance. While this may not be straightforward for some office workers, if you’re struggling at work with concentration or decision-making, the benefits you could reap mean it’s worth considering a bit of office shuffling to try to get the best out of your location.
Based on the principles of Maharishi Ayurveda’s sister science, Maharishi Sthapatya Veda (MSV), studies of peak brain function show that the firing patterns of neurons in the part of the brain that regulates sensory information and levels of awareness are significantly different depending on which direction a person is facing. Face one way and a specific set of neurons activate. Look the other and another set fire. So what is the best direction for optimal brain performance while you work? The answer is east, but if east is not possible, the next best direction is north, while south and west are considered “unfavourable”.
Air — bring the outside in
For anyone working inside an artificially ventilated building, breathing fresh, pure air is simply not possible. While air purifiers and humidifiers can provide some benefit, one of the best ways to naturally improve the quality of air you breathe is to use Mother Nature. As Bunn explains, “If the wind is Mother Nature’s breath, the plant kingdom is her lungs.” A study by Professor Margaret Burchett from the University of Technology in Sydney found that pot plants inside can reduce air toxins by as much as 20 per cent. Burchett’s team also demonstrated how various plants can reduce volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, by up to 75 per cent. Another study of houseplants showed they reduce fatigue, sore throats and cold symptoms by over 30 per cent. Studies in Europe have shown that potplants in a workplace can reduce sick leave by 60 per cent.
A plant also helps counteract the hot, solar energy of the computer and absorbs pollutants in the air. The air inside an office can be 5–10 times more polluted than that found outdoors, but a simple plant on your desk can purify some of those toxins and give you fresher oxygen to breath. Bunn suggests palms, ferns and spider plants are good choices for offices as they are excellent for air purification as well as being easy to maintain.
Fire – seek sunlight
It’s amazing how little sunshine some people get in a day. So many of us now arrive at work as the sun is rising and leave after it has set, without stepping outside to get some of the sun’s rays during the day. Bunn says one of the most important things we can consider in terms of creating a healthy workplace is getting enough vitamin D. It might be beneficial to get a blood test to assess your vitamin D level (serum 25 OH or hydroxyvitamin D3) and find out exactly how much vitamin D you are getting.
To prevent any adverse affects from a lack of sunlight, though, it’s important to get outside in the sun as often as possible. While you shouldn’t expose yourself to too much sun, Bunn suggests rolling up your sleeves or pants if you can and getting some sunlight on the skin. “It might only be 10 minutes but it is so important for your overall health. If possible, take a moment to give thanks to the sun and welcome its gifts of warmth, light and healing into your life.” If you are feeling a little down or negative, just stepping outside into the sun may be all you need to feel rejuvenated and more positive.
Sun gazing is another technique that can play an important role in a modern workplace. “It’s an ancient practice best done first thing in the morning, when you actually gaze directly at the sun. The idea is that the body needs direct sunlight — through the eyes — each day to create the neuro-chemicals for happiness and joy,” says Bunn. Traditionally, sun gazing was practised within 45 minutes of sunrise or sunset when there is no discomfort or danger to the eyes and was initially performed for just a few seconds at a time. However, even if you just take off your sunglasses when you step outside at lunchtime, you’ll begin to get some of the sunshine through your eyes and stimulate the right chemistry in your body.
Water — drink, drink, drink
Dehydration is one of the biggest contributing factors to poor health in office workers. Mental clarity, productivity and general health are all affected by a simple lack of water. “The best example I give of just how much dehydration can affect people is when you see an ultra-marathon runner on the TV at the end of the race and they can’t even put one foot in front of the other,” says Bunn. “While it’s extreme, even just mild dehydration begins to affect our bodies in a similar way.”
If you aren’t getting enough water, the first thing you’ll notice is poor energy levels. People who are dehydrated will complain of being tired or fatigued all the time. The second thing you’ll notice is headaches. So often when you reach for a pill for a headache, you should be having a couple of glasses of water. In fact, Bunn suggests most of these headaches can be cured within 15 minutes with a glass or two of warm water (at least room temperature — avoid the ice-cold water cooler). “Remember, the brain is about 80 per cent water, so if it doesn’t get enough, the brain actually shrinks and causes the pain of a headache.”
However, don’t assume the eight-glasses-a-day rule applies to you. People’s hydration needs are very different and it’s not recommended you just blindly follow this guideline. Bunn suggests that in order to know how much water a day you should drink, stop regularly to tune in to your body’s inner wisdom regarding thirst and regularly check the colour of your urine. It should be clear or a pale straw colour.
Earth — touch the ground
Finally, to bring the five elements into your workplace, you need to balance earth and that means connecting with the living, breathing organism that is the earth. People who work in a high-rise office building from morning till night will often go the whole day without physically connecting with the ground, never actually “earthing” or “grounding” themselves. “Anecdotally, I believe there is a correlation between anxiety and high stress levels and not grounding yourself during the day,” Bunn says. For more information on earthing, see the Barefoot Earthing article in this issue.
While one of the downsides of modern living is being forced indoors into unnatural environments such as offices for long periods, one of the upsides is the technology we now have at our fingertips. Mobile phones with a variety of applications mean we now have a Dictaphone, an email service, the internet and anything else you may need to do your job in the palm of your hand — and it’s mobile! Use the latest voice recognition technology to speak your emails while walking around the block. Make notes on your Dictaphone and have all your work calls diverted to your mobile while you get some sunshine and pound the pavement. Your work can travel — so should you, providing you use your mobile phone as safely as possible, preferably on speaker.
While using these high-tech devices to get outside is great, remember to also take a moment to connect with the earth. Walk on grass, not concrete or road, if possible. Take off your sunglasses, as suggested earlier. Take your lunch to the park and sit on the ground if you can. Of course, the other benefit of all of these activities is the physical exercise you are getting as well.
Historically, human beings never needed a gym. We moved all day, ensuring our bodies got enough exercise to maintain optimum health and a healthy weight. Now, though, with the evolution of the office chair, we find ourselves seated for long periods of time — too long. Research shows that an essential first step to general health and wellbeing has nothing to do with structured exercise but rather with accumulating a minimum amount of general movement and activity in the course of the day. So, whenever you can, you get off your office chair and move. Couple regular movement and stretching with all the other five essential elements outlined above and you will begin to see a dramatic difference in not only your productivity at work but your mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Reference: Mark Bunn is the author of Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health, published by Enlightened Health Publishing, W: www.markbunn.com.au or www.wisdomsofhealth.com
Amy Taylor-Kabbaz is a broadcaster and freelance writer with a passion for social issues. She currently writes a weekly blog on the trials and triumphs of motherhood, called The Mummy Monologues, for the ABC website in Adelaide (www.abc.net.au/adelaide)