Designing for Mental Health

A great deal of work has already been done (and continues to be done, of course) on the physical wellbeing of people in the workplace – but what about designing for the mind? Fantastic work is now being done on wellbeing and how that is designed into buildings. So how important is emotional wellbeing and what does the designer really need to understand before work begins? How do you get the right message across to your clients? 

We brought a brilliant panel of industry experts together to discuss this increasingly prevalent subject – and found that we learnt far more about mental health and wellbeing than we ever could have expected. Here’s just a snippet of what was a genuinely fascinating discussion. 


The Discussion

We started by getting our guests in the right frame of mind, asking them, quite simply, what makes them happy? Responses ranged from free pens (kindly supplied by our sponsors, TMJ), through to choice, space and freedom. With these very much at the forefront of the mental wellbeing agenda (not the free pens!), we ask whether this is the direction in which we need to travel in terms of workplace transformation that aids mental wellbeing? 

Melanie: I would say that we’re definitely seeing these things coming to the fore – although a lot of clients do still talk the talk and don’t necessarily walk the walk. I’ve been working with a client recently who appears to have completely backtracked and is not even going to provide free tea and coffee! Then you look at other organisations, such as GlaxoSmithKline, who are actually saying, ‘We’re going to provide really good quality coffee – we don’t care about the price’. This is real tip-of-the-iceberg, simple little wellbeing stuff. It’s going to be interesting to see whether organisations really do embrace these ideas – after all, this is about supporting mental health – or it is about just ticking a box and saying to people, ‘You’re stressed – go home’. 


Elaine: That point really resonates with me. Just ticking the boxes and not solving the problem is not the answer – it should be the culture of the organisation. There’s no point in having all these spaces when nobody feels as though they can actually use them! We’ve found that this really comes from the top down. The age of directors getting the best office has gone. You need that corner with the fantastic views to go to all the employees – that’s when it really starts to become part of the culture. 

Simon: What we have seen a lot with our clients is that it is the culture that is the most important part of the puzzle – that’s what we have to get right. Upper management often buy into this concept. We find that the biggest obstruction comes from middle management. It’s not the employees at a ‘lower level’ – they really want to embrace this and want to have the choice and the ability to work most effectively. It’s that middle management level – the guy who sits within his team and is nervous about seeing his team away from their desks because they’ve taken time to go and clear their heads and play table tennis. They then become frustrated because they feel that the team isn’t getting on with the work that they need them to do. Meanwhile, the guys at the top seem to be embracing all this. 


Petr: What we are seeing is that employees are naturally becoming more nomadic – they make choices for themselves and are far more content to move to the right place to work. Therefore it’s part of the reaction by employers to encourage this, which helps improve their retention rates and also helps them develop their wellbeing strategy – which in turn helps them attract the best people. So there is a purely commercial reasoning behind a lot of this. I think this is a big part of why we’re seeing more flexibility. 

Helen: It’s a real challenge for those middle managers – they’re in the middle of the sandwich. They’ve been given this remit by people who have time to dream and be strategic. Middle management has to make things happen in terms of the strategy – and equally they’ve probably got families and mortgages and commitments. So they’re having to keep things together at home as well as at work – and then they’ve got this younger generation, generally, who they’re trying to send in one direction or another. I think they get it from both sides. 


Petr: They’re caught in the middle with stress from both sides. 

Justine: I think it can be difficult sometimes and part of the problem is, for companies to find the incentive to invest in health and wellbeing, there isn’t the measurement to quantify the value and benefits this will bring to their business. It can be really difficult to convince the client to spend the money on actually trying to improve things. 

Petr: There are tools that can measure those metrics – but I think it’s really about creating that narrative so that they can actually go to their board and say that, by implementing this design and spending an extra £10 per sq ft… 


Helen: In a way, in terms of the terminology, it’s actually the other way around – how much it’s saving you, rather than how much you’re spending. In some ways, if you’re looking at the WELL Standard, in some respects you can be slightly cynical about it because it is an American import that’s designed and manufactured by health services for insurance purposes to ensure that they reduce the costs of illness and make more money out of it. On the positive side of that, it does mean that there are now metrics that say that healthier people mean more money for an organisation. 

Lauren: I do a lot of work on the WELL Standard – and I think it’s opening up a lot of different discussions with different groups of people. So, on projects we work on, working alongside engineers and architects, we talk about the design but we are also now able to open up discussions and engage with HR and talk about mental health and how important it is for a company to be supportive to their staff. 


Helen: To be realistic, WELL is driven by commerciality – which is fine because we live in a capitalist society. The really good thing that has come from the WELL Standard is that corporate businesses now see it, like they did with sustainability a few years ago, as 

Simon: That’s the advantage that wellbeing has over the sustainability movement. Ultimately, that’s not achieved what everyone wanted it to. Clearly it’s a massive issue that needs to be addressed – but it’s much harder to assess how that’s beneficial for your business. When it comes to these large corporates, they often realise that they have a responsibility to fully embrace the sustainability piece. When it comes to smaller businesses, however, you can go and talk to them about sustainability and why it’s important to spend the money to get it right – and they simply don’t see the payback. With the wellness piece, they do. You can start to show them the metrics and to understand the effects of absenteeism etc. 


Lauren: Pretty much everybody understands wellness and it would be very difficult for them to simply say, ‘I don’t care’. 

Sarah: As a joinery company we heavily support main contractors in achieving wellbeing standards. This can be deemed as more of a tick box exercise rather than true consideration for wellbeing. We need there to be wider recognition in the marketplace regarding how to achieve these standards and the true benefits of them. 


Is it a challenge to talk to clients specifically about mental health? 

Helen: It is. We recently did a talk in Glasgow where we were on panel with someone from Scottish Autism – and the first thing they said was, ‘Could we please define the difference between mental health and Neurodiversity?’ When we talk about mental health we’re talking about depression – about those things that come over you, that can be treated and that you can hopefully get over. Neurodiversity is something that you are born with. We’re in the design profession – and one in 25 of the population is Neurodiverse and we’ve probably got a lot of Neurodiverse people in our profession. There’s lots of dyslexia amongst the design fraternity, for example – and that’s considered Neurodiverse – and then there’s other things such as autism that become more extreme along the spectrum. There’s a huge opportunity to support, encourage and engage with a variety of Neurodiverse people and help them work in their environments – and we should absolutely not think of them as people with mental health issues. We almost need to broaden our view on what Neurodiversity is.


Elaine: The term mental health has got stigma around it. People do think autism, they think depression, they think something is wrong with someone. This is what the client often thinks – and they are not experts. They are coming to you because you’re the expert. I almost feel that using a term like mental wellbeing is much more user-friendly – talking about light, sound, perception of space, stress factors within the workplace and how you relate to your colleagues. 

Justine: I think we’ve come to a certain point – but we still really need to take the next few steps so that we have a proper understanding of the issues. As we’ve already pointed out, there are still terms that we don’t even understand – and we really need to understand that before we can actually take it forward and implement it into workplace strategy. 


Helen: We’ve been very privileged in that we work with organisations such as the BBC, who are currently championing Neurodiversity. They found that they had a number of people who were struggling in the environment of a normal office and one of their senior leadership members saw that something was wrong with one of their team – and realised that there was a stress there. Instead of thinking, ‘Oh, there’s a bit of a problem here’, they asked why that person was feeling this way. They realised that they were getting some great work from this person – but they were still suffering. By investigating, they not only helped this person but also started to really champion Neurodiversity. 

Elaine: I think that, a lot of the time, people realise that there is something wrong and that the space doesn’t necessarily fit, but they don’t necessarily know how to put that into words – how to communicate what’s wrong. Some people are light sensitive, others are noise sensitive and others are touch sensitive – and understanding how people perform in different environments, quiet spaces or collaborative spaces, already goes some way to help solve that puzzle. 

Helen: The space should support the people. We need to remember that it is the inanimate space that is the problem – and not the person.



The understanding of mental wellbeing in the workplace has moved a long, long way very quickly – although we’ve only just scratched the surface. As our panel (and obo’s Gary Helm) have pointed out, the design industry’s leading lights are now setting a great example by starting to understand not just the ‘conditions’ of people, but the people themselves. Small changes can make a huge difference to an awful lot of people.


Our Guests


Petr Esposito. Director, ThirdWay Architecture 

Petr is a Founding Director of ThirdWay Architecture, a progressive studio embedded within The ThirdWay Group, aligning the benefits of a traditional architectural practice with the pace, flexibility and market knowledge of a creative multi-disciplinary studio. TWA are committed to developing and building ideas that reflect contemporary thinking, working and living. 


Melanie Woolcott, Workplace Director, Orbit Architects 

Melanie is an expert in the field of workplace consultancy and design, with over 30 years’ experience. She is responsible for introducing innovative flexible workplace environments in both the public and private sectors. Melanie utilises current thinking and future trends to develop new and innovative environments ‘tailor made’ to match her clients’ requirements. 


Helen Berresford, Partner Head, Sheppard Robson 

Helen is Partner and Head of ID:SR, Sheppard Robson’s award-winning interior design group. Helen is a recognised industry leader and, through her creative leadership, ID:SR has developed an activity-driven design approach that puts people at the heart of the design process and is helping to overturn the traditional concept of the office environment. 


Elaine du Preez, Interior Designer, Cushman & Wakefield 

Elaine recently joined Cushman & Wakefield as an Associate, to work as a part of the design department. She brings 10 years’ experience within various sectors of interior design, including exhibition design and corporate interiors, as well as architecture. Elaine has a keen interest in psychology in the workplace, and how design can affect the lives of those who inhabit it. 


Justine Mason, Interior Designer, BDP 

Justine is an interior designer who has been working with the BDP ID family for almost four years. She specialises in workplace interiors, with a keen interest in the future of design. Aside from the obvious, she loves music – mixing Drum & Bass is one of her favourite pastimes and she has been heavily influential in her approach to design through the visual interpretation of sound and space. 


Lauren Williams, Associate Director, AECOM UK 

Lauren, Associate Director within AECOM UK’s Sustainable Development Group, has over 11 years’ experience of acting as a sustainability champion and undertaking building environmental rating schemes on projects throughout London and Europe. She is an accredited professional in all major environmental assessment schemes and is on several steering committees looking at the future of these schemes and their synergies. 


Simon Hart, Head of Design, AIS 

A proper design nerd devoted to producing workplace designs that progress people, Simon founded the AIS design team and has pushed forward its development, ensuring people-centric outputs that go beyond the brief. Simon is a constant driver of innovation, recently implementing emerging technologies including VR and augmented reality. 


Sarah Warren, Pre-Contracts Director, TMJ Interiors 

TMJ Interiors is one of the UK’s leading bespoke joinery companies, working on prestigious and exciting projects in the commercial, residential and specialist sectors. Sarah leads the front end of the business, including business development, estimating and winning work. Having worked for TMJ for ten years, Sarah is very proud of being promoted to the board of directors as the first female board member in TMJ’s history.