Researchers urge integrative health framework in built environment post-COVID-19

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University of Arizona researchers Esther Sternberg, MD, and Altaf Engineer, MS, have come up with a roadmap to help companies rethink their office spaces in ways that could make workers happier and healthier, according to new research published in the journal Building and Environment

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic emptied many offices, and there are some indications the exodus isn't temporary. The American Psychological Association points to a 2020 survey that shows more than half of U.S. employees expect to continue working from home at least one day a week.

Sternberg is a leading expert on how the spaces where we live and work can reduce stress and enhance overall health and well-being. She holds the Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine and is the research director for the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine. She also is founding director of the university's Institute on Place, Wellbeing, and Performance, a partnership that includes the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, the College of Medicine Tucson, and the College of Architecture, Planning, and Landscape Architecture.

Engineer is an assistant professor of architecture and a faculty member in the Institute on Place, Wellbeing & Performance, as well as faculty adviser for the Master of Science in Architecture program's health in the built environment concentration.

Based on established research in the field of integrative medicine and integrative health, the paper proposes a seven-domain framework developed at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine for designing the built environment for well-being. The work draws on Sternberg's studies with the U.S. General Services Administration, which showed that office space layout can encourage a person to move more and, in turn, reduce stress and improve sleep. The paper cites many other studies, such as those showing the sleep-improving effects of natural light, the wellbeing benefits of nature, and the health benefits of proper building air circulation, which can improve cognitive functioning and reduce fatigue by reducing pollutants.

Engineer and Sternberg make the case that by fostering integrative health practices, a thoughtfully designed built environment can help make people more resilient to infections, including viruses such as coronaviruses. They say the pandemic has forced companies to rethink the role of offices in employee health and well-being and to prioritize designing for wellbeing.

"The built environment strongly influences behavior, especially behavior that determines health," said Andrew Weil, MD, founder and director of the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine and the Lovell-Jones Endowed Chair in Integrative Medicine, in a statement. "The framework we describe for embedding integrative health into the built environment is even more important now, for [post-COVID-19] re-entry, to help keep people resilient and enhance mental health and well-being. This is the next frontier of integrative health."

Editor's note: Click here for more information and ongoing COVID-19 updates for integrative healthcare professionals.