Water- Five Senses and the Work Environment

In the work environment, water plays various important roles when it comes to our well-being and productivity, much more than we realize. This is because we not only drink water, but also see, listen to, and touch it. In this article, we are going to look at how our body and five senses respond to water in order to see how best we can use it in the work environment.

(Yoko’s snapshot)- Early morning in fall. I’ve just watered the indoor plants in my home office before sitting at my desk. There is a glass of water in front of me. When I extend my hand to grab it, the glass surface is cold, and wet with condensation. My monitor display is an image of a nearby beach with some stacked stones at front, dark blue of the ocean in the middle, and the light blue of the sky above.

Drinking Water

When we drink water, it becomes a part of our body, which keeps it alive and allows it to function well.  Water maintains cell integrity and health, eliminates body waste, regulates body temperature, lubricates joints and carries nutrients and oxygen to cells.1Kleiner SM. Water: An essential but overlooked nutrient. Journal Of The American Dietetic Association. 1999;99(2):200-206. Since water works in so many ways in our bodies, we need to make sure we drink enough on a daily basis, about 90 oz for adult women and 125 oz for adult men.2Institute of Medicine. Dietary Reference Intakes for Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2005.

The water we drink must be safe. When we drink contaminated or turbid water, it can cause digestive issues, such as cramps, nausea, and diarrhea.3United States Environmental Protection Agency. National primary drinking water regulations. https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations. Published 2019. Updated September 17. Accessed 2019, October 14. To prevent unsafe water in the work environment, regular water testing by the business or property owner to assess its chemical and biological quality is recommended at least once a year.4WELL Building Standard, Feature W03: https://v2.wellcertified.com/wellv2/en/water/feature/3

Drinking enough water can decrease the number of sick days and also make workers happier, both of which are critical for businesses and employees. It prevents symptoms such as stroke and high blood pressure.5Thornton SN. Thirst and hydration: Physiology and consequences of dysfunction. Physiology & Behavior. 2010;100(1):15-21. It is also associated with short-term improvements in subjective mood in adults, ranging from positive feelings of alertness to feelings of calmness and a reduced sense of fatigue.6Benton D, Young HA. Do small differences in hydration status affect mood and mental performance? Nutrition Reviews. 2015;73(suppl_2):83-96.

Even when we are aware of the importance of drinking enough water, having the recommended amount is not easy. What can be done in a building/work environment and with technology to encourage people to drink more water? Here are some simple recommendations.

Employers can:

  • Make water tastier by filtering minerals. A filter can be incorporated in a water cooler or dispenser.
  • Place water dispensers or water bottles throughout the office for easy access (100 feet is recommended7WELL Building Standard, Feature W02) to everyone. 

Workers can:

  • Keep a favorite water bottle with you or place a nice glass within your reach at all times as a reminder. Yvonne has a 64-ounce water bottle labelled with motivational statements that helps ensure she drinks enough water throughout the day.
  • Use an app to remind you and track your water intake daily such as Aqualert.

Seeing and Listening to Water

As we discussed in our Vision article, views of nature improve our wellbeing. A view of water is no exception. It can make us feel positive and restored. Both real water and images of water are effective.8White et al. (2010) Journal of Environmental Psychology It would be great if an office has a view of the water, and in fact I read that some companies relocated to such locations due the pandemic. But there are more accessible ways. 

Some offices have indoor water fountains, a painting of a waterfall, or just an image of the ocean on large screens that helps employees feel positive and restored, and ready for work. Individuals can have small water features on their desk or beach scenes on their monitors like Yoko does.  If you work from home, you can install a rain chain to the gutter to benefit from the beautiful sound and image of dancing water on an otherwise dark rainy day.

A rain chain at a home designed by Penguin Environmental Design. A rain chain makes the beautiful sound of water that helps you being well and productive.
A rain chain at a home designed by Penguin Environmental Design. A rain chain makes the beautiful sound of water that helps you being well and productive.

Listening to the sound of water also provides similar effects. Listening to water before a major stress situation significantly reduces our subsequent cortisol response, an indicator for the stress.9Thoma MV, La Marca R, Bronnimann R, et al. The effect of music on the human stress response. PLoS One 2013;8:e70156. We suggest listening to calming water sounds before a big presentation.  You can use a speaker which can be a part of the overall soundscape system of your office environment. Having a small water feature on or near your desk, is not hard at all, and offers beneficial sound effects.

Sensing Water in the Air

We sense humidity, which is actually water in the air, on our skin and other surfaces of our body such as inside our nostrils. Human-beings need proper humidity for our Thermal Comfort (TC). In our Air article, we suggested five steps to be taken to maintain TC. Certain levels of humidity are required for us to survive.  Due to this importance of humidity to our bodies, just seeing image of landscapes that suggest humidity, such as a Japanese moss garden, makes people experience healing.10Taniguchi et al. (2003) Journal of Agricultural Science

Moss garden designed by Penguin Environmental Design. Just seeing image of landscapes that suggest humidity, such as a Japanese moss garden, makes people experience healing
Moss garden designed by Penguin Environmental Design. Just seeing image of landscapes that suggest humidity, such as a Japanese moss garden, makes people experience healing

Cleaning and Purifying with Water

During the pandemic, we learned that handwashing is important since some pathogens can survive on our skin and the surface of objects. To reduce the transmission of pathogens in the work environment, businesses need to support and promote handwashing with good soaps and hand towels, and maintain proper cleaning protocols.11WELL Building Standard, W08-Handwashing & X09- Cleaning Products and Protocols The area around the water, in the bathroom or near sinks, must also support these hygienic actions with enough space, and proper layout of that space as well as easy access to it.

In addition to the actual act of cleaning with water, studies suggest that emotionally meaningful relationships with water, such as purity and sacredness, are also essential for mental health and well-being.12Cooper, S., Hutchings, P., Butterworth, J., Joseph, S., Kebede, A., Parker, A., … Van Koppen, B. (2019). Environmental associated emotional distress and the dangers of climate change for pastoralist mental health. Global Environmental Change, 59, 101994. This adds to the importance of the design of bathrooms or the area around the sinks. When the space is not only clean, but also looks and feels clean and pure, it does much more than just prevent diseases.

Gathering around Water

Just as other animals, human beings are attracted to water, because we need it for survival. We gather around water sources to drink, see, hear, and sense it, and to clean ourselves. 

Therefore, designing attractive spaces around water, such as an office kitchen, is one of the keys to promoting these actions for workers’ well-being and productivity. When people gather around a water source, such as the office water cooler, it creates chance encounters or “collisions” that can generate engagement, spark new ideas, and can lead to positive business outcomes.13Wabor, Magnolfi, & Lindsay (2014) Harvard Business Magazine

Consider placing a kitchen or coffee bar, not at the end of the office, but at its center. Make it visible so people are always aware of it and can easily access it from any direction. Design the space as if it is a lakefront, where people gather to camp and BBQ, and also come for calming solitary time.

Water is a natural element in the environment and it is a vital element of our bodies. By looking at broader instances when we involve ourselves with water, and at the multiple senses we use when we interact with water, we can take better advantage of water for our well-being in the work environment.

In our next article, we discuss monitoring humans and the environment at work.