This article assesses existing research on how the nature and constitution of working environments can be changed in order to improve the mental health of students. It focuses upon the changes which students themselves can make to their learning environments in order to improve their mental wellbeing. The results find that such changes can have positive outcomes on mental health; however, some of the findings remain controversial and more research should be undertaken to further establish such findings.
The focus of this article will be on psychology and education, and it will therefore be approached from this perspective. This article will assess how the learning environment impacts upon the mental wellbeing of the learner and explore whether these issues are being addressed within mainstream education.
Learning environments and working environments have been argued to be synonymous in the sense that all working environments are, in effect, learning environments (Harteis and Billett, 2008; Ellstrom, Ekholm and Eilstrom, 2008). These views have faced very little opposition within the educational, psychological and educational psychology communities. Therefore, for the purposes of this section, working environments will be considered within the mental health context, as solutions which have been found to apply to working environments will in effect apply to learning environments.
Working environments have been found to impact upon the mental health of people in general, including students. For example, it has been found that lighting is considered by workers to be the single most important factor in a good working environment (Samani, 2012). Samani (2012)’s study of lighting found that, in addition, “the design and appearance of workspace and individual ability to control the ambient conditions of the workplace have significant effect on their behavior, satisfaction and overall outcome including creativity.” This study also finds, through reference to the work of O’Neill (2008), that the common presupposition that open plan working environments lead to greater productivity and work satisfaction may be incorrect, as “due to lack of privacy, the amount of social in-teraction and communication between co-workers may go beyond the optimum level and employees might feel crowded and difficult to concentrate.” and that “open-plan offices [are] expected to be negatively associated with individuals’ satisfaction with the physical work environment and decrease their performance.” Roelofsen, C. (2008) found that, through the use of mathematical models to compare the performance level of employees within certain office environments with a different level of open-planning, that work performance lowered overall.
Adequate lighting reduces the likelihood of symptoms such as eye strain and headaches, and the resulting look of less gloominess leads to higher mood. In contrast, lighting which is too harsh has been found to cause heightened levels of anxiety (Wilkins, 2020). The importance of lighting has also been found to carry over to education and students’ learning performance, Wilkins (2020) finding a “significant impact between lighting quality and students’ learning performance.
In particular, it has been found that natural light is more beneficial to health than artificial light, with Mohamed, Ismail and Ahmad (2020) finding that “daylighting is an efficient method for providing better learning conditions and health in schools”, whereas in contrast, “poor daylighting causes discomfort, which reduces learning and it is detrimental to the physical and mental health of students.”
The organisational structure of a learning environment also impacts upon mental health. This often includes the extent to which emotional stressors are prevalent and the quality of communication between the student and others within the organisation (Wynaden et al., 2014). For example, these factors have been found to contribute to the situation that approximately half of all PhD students experience emotional distress and approximately one in three develop a psychiatric disorder (Levecque et al., 2017). In addition to these factors, a feeling of loneliness and social isolation – factors which have been found to lead to many different types of mental health conditions (Mushtaq, 2014) – may result in higher cases of mental illness amongst those who learn in a solo environment, such as many doctorate students.
An important element of the working environment and its impact upon mental health is social media and the extent to which it is used (Erliksson, Lindner and Mörtberg, 2020). As younger people are more likely to attempt to learn new skills (BBC NEWS | Health | Why the young learn more easily, 2020) and younger people also use social media much more frequently than older people (Smith and Anderson, 2020), it is likely that high levels of social media usage can exacerbate mental ill health amongst students and learners (Pantic, 2014). However, Pantic (2014) also notes that findings in this area remain controversial, with other studies finding positive outcomes through social media use.
The problem of loneliness and social isolation amongst students has increased throughout 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued and grown (Banerjee and Rai, 2020). Students are more likely to contract COVID-19 than others their age and of the same health status, which has led many of them to feel more anxious. From this and previous research on loneliness (Mushtaq, 2014), it follows that those who must self-isolate due to contracting COVID-19 have been found to be more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety, depression and the desire to self-harm than those who have not contracted it, and to experience these symptoms with greater severity.
Self-isolation due to COVID-19 and lockdown conditions in general exacerbate problems with the design of student accommodation (Halpern, 2020). For example, it has been found that student accommodation which is designed in the traditional manner of a corridor with rooms on either side increases rates of anxiety, as it forces people into environments where they must encounter people who they either do not know or do not like (Halpern, 2020). This study found that, in situations outside of the learning environment, such as in GP appointments, if the student lived in the design of student accommodation mentioned, they would sit further away from others waiting for their appointments, avoid eye contact and not speak to each other as much than if they lived in student accommodation which was not designed in this way.
If a student is forced to remain within these confines for an extended period of time, the symptoms will be exacerbated. Looking beyond COVID-19, the design of accommodation, either student-based or otherwise, has a significant impact upon the mental wellbeing of the learner. If, for example, the learner is working from home, their living environment will become their working environment, which means that the way their house is designed and the way the street is designed will have an impact upon their mental wellbeing. For example, those living in the vicinity of construction work, whether it is the building of new properties or the removal by demolition, have been found to experience greater anxiety and are more likely to attend a GP appointment with a doctor due to this anxiety (Halpern, 2020). In addition, neighbourhoods which are too open to outsiders to enter lead people to feel more anxious, in relation to who the people surrounding them are and their impact upon the learners’ safety (Halpern, 2020).
The key element to remember here is that mental health conditions have been found to seriously impact upon learning outcomes (Suldo, Gormley, DuPaul and Anderson-Butcher, 2013). It is therefore essential for learner outcomes to ensure that their mental health is optimised. This can be greatly assisted through the consideration of the learning environment.
This article found that the learning environment of the learner can significantly impact upon the mental wellbeing of the learner, although the exact nature and constitution of this phenomenon remains controversial.
Findings included that there are changes which students themselves can make to their learning environment which can improve their mental wellbeing. This includes ensuring that there is adequate lighting in the learning space; avoiding social media, including by deactivating notifications; making wiser choices in regard to where they live; ensuring that they have adequate access to a good internet connection, and other elements of communication with staff and fellow students; and several other areas of potential improvement. These findings should be kept in mind by both students themselves and those playing a mentorship role within the students’ lives.
Further research is required into the several of the areas covered, including the presence of a disciplinarian vs. laissez faire style of working environment; the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of students; and the assessment of measures recommended by previous research in larger control studies.
Banerjee, D. and Rai, M., 2020. Social isolation in Covid-19: The impact of loneliness. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 66(6), pp.525-527.
Ellström, Eva & Ekholm, Bodil & Eilström, Per-Erik. (2008). Two types of learning environment: Enabling and constraining a study of care work. Journal of Workplace Learning. 20. 84-97. 10.1108/13665620810852250.
Erliksson, O., Lindner, P. and Mörtberg, E., 2020. Measuring associations between social anxiety and use of different types of social media using the Swedish Social Anxiety Scale for Social Media Users: A psychometric evaluation and cross-sectional study. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology.
Harteis, Christian & Billett, Stephen. (2008). The workplace as learning environment: Introduction. International Journal of Educational Research. 47. 10.1016/j.ijer.2008.07.002.
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J. and Gisle, L., 2017. Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), pp.868-879.
Mohamed, K., Ismail, A. and Ahmad, N., 2020. THE EFFECTS OF INTERNAL PARTITION ON INDOOR DAYLIGHTING PERFORMANCE OF STUDENT RESIDENTIAL BUILDING IN IPOH, PERAK. Malaysian Journal of Sustainable Environment, 7(2), p.1.
Mushtaq, R. (2014). Relationship Between Loneliness, Psychiatric Disorders and Physical Health? A Review on the Psychological Aspects of Loneliness. JOURNAL OF CLINICAL AND DIAGNOSTIC RESEARCH.
News.bbc.co.uk. 2020. BBC NEWS | Health | Why The Young Learn More Easily. [online] Available at: <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6172048.stm> [Accessed 8 November 2020].
Pantic, I., 2014. Online Social Networking and Mental Health. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), pp.652-657.
Roelofsen, C.. (2008). Performance loss in open-plan offices due to noise by speech. Journal of Facilities Management. 6. 202-211. 10.1108/14725960810885970.
Samani, Sanaz. (2012). The Impact of Indoor Lighting on Students’ Learning Performance in Learning Environments: A knowledge internalization perspective. International Journal of Business and Social Science. 3.
Smith, A. and Anderson, M., 2020. Social Media Use 2018: Demographics And Statistics. [online] Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Available at: <https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/> [Accessed 8 November 2020].
Suldo, S., Gormley, M., DuPaul, G. and Anderson-Butcher, D., 2013. The Impact of School Mental Health on Student and School-Level Academic Outcomes: Current Status of the Research and Future Directions. School Mental Health, 6(2), pp.84-98.
Wilkins, A., 2020. The Scientific Reason You Don’T Like LED Bulbs — And The Simple Way To Fix Them. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/the-scientific-reason-you-dont-like-led-bulbs-and-the-simple-way-to-fix-them-81639> [Accessed 8 November 2020].
Wynaden, D., McAllister, M., Tohotoa, J., Al Omari, O., Heslop, K., Duggan, R., Murray, S., Happell, B. and Byrne, L., 2014. The Silence of Mental Health Issues Within University Environments: A Quantitative Study. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 28(5), pp.339-344.
Jacob Padget is an Experienced Events Manager, Digital Marketer and non-profit Administrator and a former intern in Tianmei's World Academy. This article was written during his Pagoda Projects internship with Tianmei's World Academy in 2020. Author's LinkedIn Profile: Jacob Padget | LinkedIn