Decorate your cubicle -- for your own mental health

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

Published August 2, 2013 12:15PM (EDT)

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.

By Tom Jacobs

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