How to Build a Brain-Healthy Workplace

How to Build a Brain-Healthy Workplace

What does a brain-healthy workplace look like? What are the benefits of turning your office into a 'gym for the mind'?

What is brain health?

Brain health is the balance of mental agility, stimulation and stability that keeps us all happy and healthy. The right balance empowers individuals to achieve their full potential in cognitive, social, emotional, and physical tasks. Brain health is crucial for peak performance and innovation in today's knowledge-based economy.

A new spike of interest in brain health

In recent years, there has been a spike of interest in 'brain health' as people look for solutions to the mental health crisis based on neuroscientific insight and research. Books like those from the neuroscientist Friederike Fabritius have appeared in business bestseller lists, showing how brain chemistry can be affected by the environments we work in, alleviating or exacerbating stress levels and associated illness.

New research from HKS promotes the value of brain training.

Now, the work of Dr Upali Nanda, global practice director of research at HKS and partner to the US Center for Brain Health, is building on these findings, examining how the workplace can be optimised to actively improve (as well as maintain) peak cognitive performance.

"The brain, just like your body, needs fitness, it can be trained, it can be empowered to do its maximum potential work.”

Dr Upali Nanda

Can the workplace really be a ‘gym for the brain’?

Interviewed on the Steelcase podcast, Dr Nanda talked about how the office can and should become a place where we train our brains to improve our professional performance - just in the same way as we use gyms to improve our physical condition...

The current workplace is not ‘brain healthy’

But right now, Dr Nanda and her team argue, most workplaces are not set up to nurture improved performance in this way. There’s an in-built expectation that we should continually multitask throughout the day and it’s impacting our collective ability to be productive.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association, when we multitask we make 50% more mistakes and take 50% longer to complete a task.

In many ways, the open-plan office environment, the flood of mobile technology, and the prevalence of IM software like ‘Slack’ - are all ruining our ability to focus and perform.

A crisis of comfort and concentration in the workplace

To do our best work we need our brains to be free to focus and pursue one task or idea at a time. But as we sit at our workstations we are bombarded with stimulation from all directions. In the words of Dr Nanda, this is fueling a crisis of comfort and concentration.  We are continually hacking our physical workstations (re-adjusting and even dragging them around)  trying to adapt to a succession of opposing demands.  And yet it’s never enough.

“Our workstations are multitasking. Our places are trying to do too much that they were not intended to do, and it’s creating cognitive chaos.”

Dr Upali Nanda

Brain training and the workplace

Luckily, Dr Nanda argues there is something we can do about this.

Our workplaces and working practices can be consciously redesigned to help us fit the right tasks to the right environment while extending our neuroplasticity (our ability to mentally adapt to fresh ideas)

The ABC of brain health in the workplace

Dr Nanda recommends embracing the ABC of brain health in the workplace to give our people the environments they need to maintain and train their brain function in an optimal way.

A - Align intent with environment

Match the nature of our tasks (intent) with the appropriate environment and equipment(affordances) to help us with focus and productivity.

B - Balance our minds

Implement company-wide strategies to promote balanced cognitive and behavioural function to help with strategic attention and integrated reasoning.

C - Connect with each other and our spaces

Take regular breaks, move around the work environments, support meditation and other wellness habits. Dr Nanda advocates for giving our brains the space and conditions they need to find fuel and inspiration for sustained concentration and creativity.

Implementing the ABC

Support varied work environments to align intent to task

Create different types of workspaces to cater to various tasks and needs. Build quiet zones and introduce pods for focused work (Dr Nanda calls these ‘brainboxes'). Open out neighbourhoods for collaborative teamwork and social hubs for informal interactions. A varied collection of neighbourhoods helps employees choose the best environment for specific tasks and promotes movement throughout the day, which is beneficial for brain health.  Employers should also ensure that the right furniture is in place to give us full support for the tasks we are involved in.

One single workstation doesn’t have the affordances of all the things you want to have for a balanced work and life.

Dr Upali Nanda

Support balance of body and mind

Creating enriching environments

Support activities that challenge and stretch employees’ cognitive abilities. 

We can be very intentful in our design of workplaces that encourage creativity, lateral thought and wellbeing. For example, the selection of books and objects on display that workers can interact with, to the provision of chess boards and other games in nooks throughout the workplace.  


Offer opportunities for professional development and continuous learning. This keeps employees mentally stimulated and engaged. But think about what kind of learning environments work best for todays cross-generational and eternally connected teams. For more information you can read our blog about building active learning environments.

Dr Nanda also suggests your business should consider brain health training programs such as SMART from the Center for BrainHealth to build your organisation’s collective mental resilience.

But a holistic approach to brain health, supported by attention to physical fitness,  is also important. Consider gamifying exercise in the workplace through digitally monitored steps challenges, or offering healthy snacks as a power boost within daily stand-ups.

My project-1 (46)

In addition, you can designate wellness rooms for rest and relaxation, where employees can take short breaks to recharge and meditate. Read our blog on how IE created wellness spaces for Pfizer workers.

“A wellness room should be designed for one person to use at a time. Ideally, it should be located in a discreet, out-of-the-way location. This will make it feel even more private for workers, and allows them to slip away quietly without attracting much attention.”

Rachel Brown, Senior Designer at IE

Create opportunities for sensory engagement

Design spaces that engage multiple senses by using varied textures, colours, and sounds. This helps keep the brain active and engaged, preventing sensory monotony.  

Embrace biophilic design

Incorporate natural light, greenery, and fresh air into the workspace. These elements are proven to improve cognitive function and overall well-being.

biophilic design steelcase


Creating social connections is also hugely important in the search for the right blend of mental stimulation and challenge.

Foster social connections

Collaboration Spaces: Designate areas for team collaboration and social interaction. These spaces should encourage communication and teamwork to foster a sense of community and interdependence.

Plan regular social activities:

Plan regular social and team-building activities to strengthen relationships among employees. Even in restricted spaces, there are many opportunities to turn meeting spaces into social spaces through the use of more flexible furnishing.

“The Fast & Furious collaboration zone in the Allianz office designed by IE supports underwriters meeting with external brokers for face-to-face negotiations, while for evening events the entire space can be cleared for larger functions.”  

Read more about the design of Allianz’s ‘destination office’ here.


In the Steelcase podcast and an article in this month’s Work Better magazine, Dr Nanda points to brain health as the most important but most neglected feature of the wellness revolution.  

“We’ve done ourselves a disservice in talking about wellbeing in terms of yoga mats and respite. It’s become a very narrow definition. There’s a broader definition to flourish to our maximum potential. To do that, you have to invest in your brain.”

Dr Upali Nanda

By implementing some of these strategies covered in this blog, organisations can create brain-friendly workplaces that support cognitive health, enhance overall well-being, and boost employee productivity and satisfaction. Dr. Nanda's insights emphasise the importance of a holistic approach to workplace design, considering both the physical environment and the cognitive needs of employees.


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