One Major Health Effect Of Working Under Overhead Lights

Overhead lighting's been getting harsh treatment on social media. Experts say indeed it can take a toll...especially at work.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the number of people working from home tripled between 2019 and 2021. This was primarily due to the pandemic, but Americans haven’t returned to the office like workers in other countries. The Wall Street Journal reported last month that only half of Americans have returned to the workplace.

We’d venture to say that for the most part, people like working from home. For starters, you can control the temperature, the noise, the air quality and the general ambiance (non-toxic candles for the win). One particular component of work-from-home life that’s suddenly a growing conversation on social media is the lighting. It turns out, light can impact our sleep, our skinvision and hormone health…but, say experts, natural light tends to be ideal. If you’re one of the sensitive types who likes the mood to be quiet during the day, you might not be shocked to learn that light can have a big impact on your psychological health. 

“Lighting significantly impacts our psychology, mental wellbeing, and physical health,” says Scott Lyons, PhD, DO, a licensed holistic psychologist, educator and author. “I always suggest to a patient or company to ‘test it out,'” Dr. Lyons says—adding that identifying which lighting level works best for you can even impact your performance.

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Overhead lighting vs. low lighting

“Studies show that bright light tends to help with memory, attention, and performance,” Dr. Lyons says. “This makes sense when we recognize that dim light is more associated with relaxing and unwinding after a long day.”

If you’re the type who walks into a room, turns off the overhead lights, and creates a softer mood with table lamps and candles, then you’ve already figured out your lighting vibe…but if you don’t instinctively know whether you like bright light or dim, Dr. Lyons lists some questions to ask yourself about how you feel in various light environments:

  • Do your emotions feel more heightened between bright light or dim?
  • Are your focus and attention sharper in bright or dim light?
  • Do you remember more details about your day between bright and dim light?
  • Are you more comfortable and relaxed in bright or dim light? 
  • Which lighting helps you sleep well at night: Dim light or bright?

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And here’s why there’s variance from person to person: It turns out that we all perceive light differently. (Some eye health professionals even posit that light-colored eyes are more sensitive to light than dark eyes.) Says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist, author and wellness expert: “One study found that those who can control their task lighting were significantly more productive.” 

Studies have shown that lighting perceived as too dark is associated with a low mood level—but when workers experience lighting as too bright, their moods also declined. “Lighting that is experienced as ‘just right’ is associated with the highest mood level,” Dr. Manly says. 

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What’s the best lighting for work?

“Studies such as these underscore the fact that each employee may experience lighting differently, and it’s critical to be aware that individual needs—which may vary over time—are an important part of the equation,” Dr. Manly says. “As an example, an office environment with overhead lighting that is not controllable by employees may—depending whether the lighting is experienced as too bright or too dim—certainly impact mood and overall functioning.”

For many of us, modern life has robbed us of spending our lives outside and working with the rhythms of the seasons. As a population, we’re vitamin-D deficient, and most of us aren’t getting enough natural benefits from sunlight. Even though we can’t get vitamin-D through windows, an Australian study at The University of Adelaide showed that exposure to natural light in the workplace improved both the health and productivity of workers. 

But since we can’t all be outside, we need to do the best with what we have. Fluorescent lighting isn’t exactly a crowd favorite, and it’s known to impact vision, trigger migraines and deteriorate mood. “Circadian lighting—electric light designed to support health by minimizing the impact on the circadian systems—has been found to increase vitality and alertness in office workers,” Dr. Manly says. “As technology has shifted, we’ve learned the importance of using lighting to positively impact mood and wellbeing while also offering aesthetically pleasing benefits.” 

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Jaime Stathis
Jaime Alexis Stathis is a nonfiction writer whose favorite topics are humans, technology, animals, wildlife, and the places where they intersect. She writes about health, wellness, technology, nutrition, and everything related to being a human being on a constantly evolving planet. Her work has been published in Self, Wired, Parade, Bon Appétit, The Independent, Rachael Ray In Season, and others. She is also a Licenced Massage Therapist. Jaime is working on a novel about a heroine who saves herself and a memoir about caring for her grandmother through the dark stages of dementia.