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Mental health at work: Dr Jo Yarker, Affinity Health at Work

As Deloitte reports that mental health costs UK employers £45 billion in 2019, organisations are realising they need to move beyond the standard wellbeing offers. We speak to Dr Jo Yarker, CEO of Affinity Health at Work about prioritising mental health at work.

16/09/2020 5 min read

Jo is passionate about understanding what we can do to foster fulfilling, healthy and productive work, particularly under times of challenge. She is an award-winning occupational psychologist, specialising work, health and wellbeing, and leads the Professional Doctorate in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London.

What prompted you to first become involved with mental health?

I was in a lift going up to the 24th floor of a London office block as an eager, new graduate starting my new job and was surprised to see so many people around me looking pretty unimpressed with their lot, despite holding sought-after jobs, working in beautiful spaces and earning well. I can remember thinking, ‘Why are some people happy and thriving at work, while others are not?’ It has taken me on a long fascinating journey to help people lead better working lives. Mental health is a central component of that. 

Why do you think mental health has suddenly become the key topic when it comes to people talking about wellbeing? 

Not prioritising mental health is no longer an option. Deloitte reported that poor mental health costs UK employers £45 billion last year. The excellent work done by Time to Talk and Mates in Mind, among others, have started to break down barriers, tackling the stigma of mental health and opening up conversations. We also have a better understanding of what employers can do to help. The pandemic, and the challenges it has brought, have brought mental health into sharp focus for all of us and so organisations are realising they need to move beyond their wellbeing offers – of gyms, free fruit in the office, yoga classes – to provide more comprehensive mental health provision.

Is poor mental health on the rise – or is it awareness of the subject that is growing? Has the stigma once associated with mental health issues disappeared?  

There is evidence to suggest that poor mental health is on the rise, particularly as we are now in the midst of the pandemic. For example, in the recent Mind survey, more than 16,000 people shared their experience and not only did those with mental health problems report these had got worse, but people reported experiencing mental ill-health for the first time. Thankfully, there is promising evidence from past pandemics and crises to suggest that, for many, these mental health problems will lift in time. We have come a long way in addressing the stigma of mental ill-health, but it has by no means disappeared. There is still a long journey ahead until people feel comfortable opening up about their experience and how it is impacting them and their work. 

Are we heading for what some members of the press are calling a ‘mental health tsunami’?  

There are certainly significant concerns and, if we do not take action now, there could be long-lasting effects for millions of people. We need to help people understand what they can do for themselves to look after their mental health, and we need to have systems in place to provide timely and appropriate support for people when they need help.


What should employers be doing to ensure that their people have the best possible support when it comes to their mental health? 

There are a number of things employers can do – and it is not just about providing support when things go wrong. The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers identified six core standards that every organisation should adopt:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan/strategy that encourages and promotes good mental health of all staff and an open organisational culture.
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees by making information, tools and support accessible.
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling, during the recruitment process and at regular intervals throughout employment, with appropriate workplace adjustments offered to employees who require them.
  • Provide your employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work/life balance and opportunities for development.
  • Promote effective people management to ensure all employees have a regular conversation about their health and wellbeing with their line manager, supervisor or organisational leader and train and support line managers in effective management practices.
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing by understanding available data, talking to employees, and understanding risk factors.

The pandemic, and the challenges it has brought, have brought mental health into sharp focus for all of us and so organisations are realising they need to move beyond their wellbeing offers – of gyms, free fruit in the office, yoga classes – to provide more comprehensive mental health provision.

How can the physical workplace help with regards to helping people cope with mental health issues? 

The physical workplace can help in many ways. Biophilic design has been found to play a significant role in supporting mental health and, while there is less research directly examining the benefits between other ambient factors and mental health, there is good evidence linking natural light, ventilation, temperature and noise to wellbeing and comfort.

Activity based working designs are increasingly popular and, although not a blanket solution, the provision of quiet areas, team desks and collaboration spaces, for example, have been found to support social interaction, communication and control of time and space – all of which are core features of job design linked to mental health.

Other features, such as open staircases, the provision of sit/stand desks and onsite gym and wellbeing facilities, are also important as frequent exercise buffers mental ill-health.

Do you have any tips when it comes to helping deal with our own mental health? 

Driven by our research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, we encourage people to build their IGLOO to stay mentally healthy at work – we all need to have Individual, Group, Line manager, and Organisational resources available to us to be able to protect and maintain mental health. 

An employees’ IGLOO for staying mentally healthy at work might include:

Individuals’ resources: like confidence, self-care (e.g. exercise, eating well), creating structure in your workday and setting clear boundaries between work and home.

Group resources: like an open feedback culture, good relationships and informal support.

Line manager resources: like ensuring necessary equipment and technology is provided, work demands and priorities are provided, affording control over the way work is done, supporting work adjustments where needed.

Organisational resources: such as providing flexible working practices and leave policies, provision of work-focused counselling and access to EAP support and building a positive culture around mental health.

We encourage people to build their own IGLOO and, where they identify gaps, try to think about how you can develop and access the resources either through training or exploring ways to change the way you work.

To find out more about Jo’s research visit: www.affinityhealthatwork.co.uk
Transition back to the workplace:  www.mentalhealthatwork.org.uk


Images courtesy of Affinity Health at Work 

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