people sitting on chairs and couches in an office setting

Can the Workplace Cure Burnout?

A Think Tank panel investigates how design changes can impact workers’ experiences in the office.

Over 40 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, an all time record—though the causes of this “Great Resignation” are many, undoubtedly burnout ranks high among them. A term to describe the emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by experiencing too much stress for too long, burnout is a problem that workplace leaders must solve if they are to retain the kinds of skilled, dedicated employees that make a business run. 

Fortunately, design can help. That’s the idea posited by a Think Tank panel held on February 3, hosted by architecture firm HKS and moderated by Metropolis executive editor Sam Lubell.

One panelist, Upali Nanda, principal and director of research at HKS, said reports of burnout are not just anecdotal. “We know it is rampant. In our most recent survey, more employees have reported having at least one symptom of burnout compared to 2020.” Nanda continued: “Connecting to coworkers is correlated to an increase in happiness.” Since the shift to a virtual workplace has come so suddenly, our brains have not had a chance to adapt.

office workers sitting at chairs by a window.
Workers take advantage of natural daylighting at an office designed by Think Tank host firm HKS.

“The kind of work Upali is doing on employee satisfaction is the future of manufacturing,” said Jennifer Kolstad. As global design director for the Ford Motor Company, these questions are not merely philosophical, but impact the happiness and wellbeing of a workforce numbering around 200,00 worldwide, and many of them are on the front lines, building cars and trucks, as opposed to white-collar “knowledge workers.”

“We’re trying to get to the heart of ideas around absenteeism and retention,” she said, explaining that Ford has to make health and wellness amenities close and convenient for all employees. “We provide nourishment, hydration, sanitation. So bathrooms must be designed differently, prayer rooms, mothers’ rooms, all this together. It’s really a total reevaluation of how you plan for manufacturing.”

Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director, Center for Brain Health, says the positive effects of this rethinking ripple outwards: “We see that when people improve their work conditions, when they see a higher purpose in their work, their family relationships actually get better. When you get a sense of purpose in one place, it spreads upward.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on February 3, 10, and 17. The conversations were presented in partnership with Versteel and GROHE.

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