January 2, 2019
We don’t know how readers in the rest of the world are doing but here in the UK we are slap bang in the depths of the British Winter, which means cold, damp and dark. There’s little doubt that this time of the year can get on top of people a little bit, leaving them feeling blue and that one of the most widely recognised causes of this is seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is directly linked to the lack of natural light we experience during the course of the day. SAD can affect each of us in different ways and to varying degrees but it is a common condition linked to the functioning of a part of our brain called the hypothalamus which controls our moods, appetite and sleep patterns. Lack of light affects us by interfering in the production of feel good hormone serotonin and disrupts the melatonin hormone and circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep.
We’re still learning about the mechanisms of SAD, but even as we develop our understanding have complicated things with the introduction of another form of light into our lives that can disrupt the way we function just as much as a lack of sunshine. Smartphones and tablets now fix us with their cyclops gaze for most of the day and the light they emit is having just as profound an impact on our wellbeing as a dearth of daylight. Research published last year by IDC found that 80 percent of smartphone users check their phone within 15 minutes of waking each day and two thirds keep it by their side for a minimum 23 hours a day. Nearly all of those surveyed (95 percent) claim they now routinely use some form of electronic device in the hour before they go to bed.
Unfortunately, this light exposure suppresses the production of melatonin, which not only means restless nights but also an increased risk of cancer, impaired immune system function, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The main culprit here is the backlit blue light emitted by televisions, tablets, computer screens and smartphones which seems to have a particular influence on our levels of melatonin and hence our sleep patterns.
Our 24/7 use of electronic devices has both physical and psychological consequences and, we would argue, is directly linked to the rise in both musculoskeletal disorders and stress and depression which are far and away the most common workplace related illnesses in the UK. Of course, the effects of our need to use these devices couple with more flexible working patterns can be mitigated or even eradicated by intelligent workplace design and good working practices, but we should never forget that all of them are supplied with a factory-installed feature that can improve our wellness if we use it in the right way. It’s called the off switch.
Image: from Picasso’s Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto
Justin Miller is the sales director of office furniture and ergonomics specialist Wellworking.