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What is sensehacking? The latest workplace wellbeing trend

Two office colleagues looking at some work on a computer at a standing desk in a modern office space.
Being in nature give us a sense of wellbeing and calm contentment. Photo: Getty (Tom Werner via Getty Images)

The modern office has gone through many changes. In the 2000s, businesses began to favour airy, open-plan workspaces over traditional cubicles. In the last decade, companies tapped into the trend of offering office perks, which included relaxing areas, games rooms and even bars.

While trends come and go, it is clear that our working environment can have a significant impact on the way we feel. Now, workspace designers are using a new technique – dubbed sensehacking – to try to make workers happier, relaxed and more focused.

Sensehacking, a term coined by Oxford University's Professor Charles Spence, refers to a technique that uses sensory inputs to influence our emotions and improve social, cognitive and mental health. Essentially, it builds on the idea of altering what we see, hear and smell to make physical spaces more enjoyable.

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Suzie Dawes, head of people & culture at the mental health charity Caba, says our five core senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – are a gateway to our physical and mental health.

“Each of these senses directly impacts our perception of the world around us and, with the right technique, can be used to improve our overall wellbeing,” she says. “By growing our awareness of how our senses affect the way we think and feel, we can actively harness them as a tool to relieve stress, lower blood pressure, improve sleep patterns and even reduce chronic pain.”

Sensehacking involves using different sounds, smells, visuals, tastes, and textures to create an experience that can help us relax or become more alert. This might mean reducing the noise in an office to reduce sensory overload, or boosting the physical space with plants and pictures.

Colour psychology

Colour psychology studies how colours affect our mental health and behaviour. It examines how different hues, shades, and tones can influence our emotions, evoke certain feelings or create specific atmospheres.

Although it may sound pseudoscientific, research suggests we tend to associate colours with certain emotions. One 2020 study that surveyed the emotional associations of 4,598 people from 30 different countries found that people commonly associate certain colours with specific emotions. While 39% of those surveyed associated green with contentment, half linked yellow with joy.

A 2018 meta-analysis of 40 research papers on the effects of workplace colour on worker mood found colours can have a significant influence on emotions, wellbeing, productivity and creativity.

“To alter our thinking, we can surround ourselves with specific colours, such as calming blues or energising reds,” says Dawes. “By understanding how colours affect us emotionally, we can make conscious decisions about which colours will help us feel better mentally and physically.”

businesswoman working on her laptop at the office
Workers reported experiencing fewer headaches in brighter airier office spaces. Photo: Getty (COROIMAGE via Getty Images)

Bringing the outside inside

Being in nature not only improves mental and physical health, but also boosts focus and creativity, reduces fatigue, and improves memory. Essentially, spending time in nature provides respite for our busy brains.

The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have a biological connection to nature because our ancestors evolved in wild settings. Although we spend now more time indoors, the theory posits that being in nature triggers a physiological response that lowers stress levels.

Although not all workers can do their jobs outside, bringing natural decor, plants, flowers and greenery into workspaces can help to boost wellbeing. In 2014, Exeter University researchers published a study which found workers were more satisfied and performed better with a bit of greenery around. Plenty of natural light also helps to relieve headaches and stress.

Think about scents

“Our sense of smell is fundamental to improving wellbeing and strongly connects to personal memories and nostalgia,” says Dawes. “Studies from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent found that the smell of nature can bring a feeling of serenity, happiness, and wellness to humans.”

In a workplace setting, this might mean adding subtly scented flowers or plants to your desk to evoke calming emotions. “Alternatively, try bringing in an essential oil reed diffuser that you can change to different scents depending on your headspace,” adds Dawes.

However, if you work closely with other people, it’s a good idea to make sure they’re happy with you adding scents to the workspace.

“To take full control of our sensory experience each day, we need to understand the unique capabilities of each sense and the impact it has on our emotional behaviour,” says Dawes.

“Recognising these interactions can help us maximise our workplace wellbeing and improve our quality of life and those around us.”

Watch: Is a four-day week the future of work?

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