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Mara Baum Q+A: Getting More Light When Working From Home

With more people sheltering in place and working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are missing out on an essential health factor that often gets overlooked: exposure to light. Mara Baum, sustainable design leader of health + wellness, explains why that’s vital and how to do it.

Why is it important to get enough light during the day?

Light affects our circadian rhythms. Inadequate circadian stimulus has significant sleep impacts, which weakens the immune system. It also generally makes us cranky and exacerbates the other well-being issues that we all currently face. Access to daylight has never been more important for keeping us healthy.

The eye has two main photoreceptors—rods and cones—that translate light coming from out in the world into images we see in our brains. A third set of photoreceptors called intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, or ipRGCs, is sensitive to specific types of light and levels of brightness that correspond to daylight. If we don’t get access to bright sources of light, these cells will never be stimulated and our bodies will develop poor circadian rhythms.

Generally, most people don’t get enough of the right type of light to fully stimulate their circadian rhythms. On average, people spend 90 percent of their day indoors. But many are getting even less now because we’re missing the dose of bright light available on our morning commutes if traveling by car, foot, bike or bus.

Some modern workplaces designed with a focus on well-being, like Pharmavite’s headquarters in Los Angeles (above), reflect this. In this office the lighting systems support circadian rhythms by changing color temperature over the course of the day.

How can we access more natural light when so many of us are working from home?

A few ideas stand out:

  • Try to go outside for a chunk of your day. Take a walk while practicing social distancing measures and perhaps do it in the morning when you might otherwise commute. Eat outside on your lunch break.
  • If you are unable to go outside, then get as much daylight from your windows as possible. Don’t draw the blinds. Consider reconfiguring your setup, rotating your workstation to be perpendicular to the window and avoid glare.
  • For people who aren’t able to get enough daylight from the outdoors, an electric lighting solution could increase the amount of light that hits the eye without creating glare problems. Use brighter, whiter light sources positioned in a way to increase light hitting the top and front of the eye, where it is more impactful for stimulating circadian rhythm. Though there are plenty of specialty products on the market that do this, a thoughtfully positioned desk lamp or light fixture would do the trick.
  • As a final step, you can increase the brightness of multiple computer monitors to direct light toward the eyes. Just as bright levels of white-blue lights at night can disrupt our sleep, increasing this light earlier in the day may be helpful. Just be careful to dial it back down after mid-afternoon.

Where do we go from here?

There are so many things in our lives right now that are not in our control. But working from home is an opportunity for us all to become better educated on how light affects our well-being. It’s especially important now as we shelter in place, but hopefully it will lead to healthier habits and lifestyles when life has returned to whatever the new normal is going to be.

Related: COVID-19: Design for Change

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