Decorate your cubicle — for your own mental health

New research suggests that personalizing your workspace can help you avoid burning out at the office

Topics: Pacific Standard, Cubicle, Neuroscience, Mental health, Employment, Unemployment, ,

Decorate your cubicle -- for your own mental health

Are you reading this while sitting in an office cubicle? If so, please take a moment and glance around you. Are there photos of your last vacation tacked up on the wall? One of your kid’s drawings? A yellowed print of a favorite cartoon?

If so, you’re doing something good for both yourself and your institution. Newly published research suggests working in an environment that offers little privacy can lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout. But personalizing one’s workspace is an effective deterrent against such unwanted outcomes.

“Individuals may consciously or subconsciously take comfort from the items with which they surround themselves at work, and these items may help employees to maintain emotional energy in the face of the stresses that come from their work,” writes a research team led by Gregory Laurence of the University of Michigan-Flint. This can be extremely important, they add, for people who do not have the option of simply closing their office door.

In the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Laurence and his colleagues describe a study featuring “87 white-collar employees at a large, urban university in the Midwestern United States.” All answered a series of questions designed to measure their level of emotional exhaustion.

Research assistants noted whether they worked in a private office (with a door that can be closed) or a cubicle. They also counted the number of items each worker had brought from home to decorate his or her workspace—a list that included photographs, posters, artworks, bumper stickers, and coffee mugs.

Not surprisingly, Laurence and his colleagues found a connection between the amount of privacy an employee enjoys and his or her rate of burnout. “High privacy conditions tend to serve as strong protectors against unwelcome interferences and distractions,” they note, “contributing to a work environment supporting reduced emotional exhaustion.”

But this link disappeared when those employees had personalized their cubicles. Employees who had turned their workspaces into areas that reflect their interests and personalities reported the same (relatively low) level of emotional exhaustion, regardless of whether they worked in an office or a cubicle.

The researchers credit “the calming effect” of having your own stuff around you. This “enables employees to cope more effectively with the interferences and distractions at work, and maintain the necessary energy needed to pursue their work successfully,” they write.

These results contain an obvious message to management: Insisting on conformity or uniformity in workspaces is counterproductive to productivity and morale.

“There is ample evidence indicating that when employees experience emotional exhaustion, they tend to respond negatively, by showing declines in such outcomes as job performance … as well as increases in absenteeism, turnover and physical health risks,” the researchers write. Burnout, in other words, is bad not just for the worker, but for the operation as a whole.

Besides, Laurence and his colleagues add, encouraging employees to personalize their workspaces “typically requires no, or little, cost on the part of the organization, while our findings suggest its effect on employee reactions at work seem to be significant.” You can’t get more cost-effective than that.

So if you’re feeling drained at work, relief could be as simple as tacking up a few of your kindergartner’s colorful creations on your cubicle wall. Your refrigerator door is probably getting crowded anyway.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...