Making Mental Health a Corporate Priority

(by Kadie Yale) Emmy-winning artist and producer Susie Frazier has a new calling in life: using interior design to help improve people’s health and wellness. Frazier lived most of her life with undiagnosed ADHD and anxiety. After she was finally diagnosed as an adult, she began to focus more on physical and mental wellness in her personal life – and at work.

With a focus on calming overstimulated brains, Frazier developed her own interiors methodology over time. Today, she incorporates biophilia and neurological research into her work to help clients create décors that provide more productive spaces. In November 2018, she released her book Designing for Wellness, a collection of mindful tips that can be implemented to nurture emotional and mental wellbeing, many of which can be incorporated into corporate interiors. And since the average American adult will spend one-third of their time at work, creating a healthy and happy office is increasingly more important

Importance of Mental Health in Design

The mental illness numbers are staggering. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states 1 in 5 adults live with mental illness – just over 18 percent of American adults. Estimates suggest that 16 million American adults live with major depression, while 6.1 million live with bipolar disorder and 2.4 million live with schizophrenia.

Of these, nearly 60 percent didn’t receive mental health services. This isn’t an individual issue. In the U.S. alone, serious mental illness, which occurs in 1 in 25 adults, costs $193.2 billion in lost earnings every year.

With Americans spending an average of 93 percent of their time indoors, interior environments matter. And interior designers must begin to design with mental health in mind – there has been an increase in studies over the years that suggest ways in which interiors can positively or negatively affect the human brain. 

How Personal Experience Affects Frazier’s Work

Living with ADHD and anxiety, Frazier is specially equipped to understand how clients can update interiors to provide a healthier work environment.

“I’m feeling a lot like a canary in a coal mine recently,” explains Frazier, “where I can go into these environments and I’ll know immediately what isn’t working for me. If it’s that visceral of a reaction for me, I’m almost certain that anyone else who hasn’t been diagnosed yet or is also facing some of these things is probably feeling similarly, but suffering in silence. I’m trying to steer the actual content in a way that will somehow counteract anything that is happening in that office or that room.”

The first thing Frazier often suggests is that employers provide a space for solitude and silence.

“Most people need some escape,” she said. Whether open office or traditional, collaborative or independent, a break from routine has been shown to build skills and knowledge. In his book How We Learn, Benedict Carey points out that while routine can be helpful, it staunches how we figure out solutions and increase creativity.

A quiet area secluded from the everyday hustle and bustle also can help employees who become easily overwhelmed realign themselves with tasks, quiet anxiety and provide space to meditate. The addition of these quiet spaces, Frazier explains, creates an environment of corporate calm and a no-bias zone for employees to address their mental health needs away from their co-workers.

Incorporate Art

Art has a long history of inclusion in corporate interiors. Companies such as Progressive have collections that, according to the Progressive Art Collection site, “promotes our company culture – the unique confluence of our people, values, aspirations and work environment – by encouraging the pursuit of innovation and change.”

As an artist, Frazier has worked with clients to provide their offices with original art that speaks to their culture, region and commitment to their employees. However, choosing art goes beyond finding standard high-production pieces and placing them in frames. Frazier suggests to her clients that they invest in original artwork that is three-dimensional in nature or can be installed away from the wall, adding a unique look to the space.

Art does more than create a beautiful office; there are so many studies that show the connection between art and mental health that it has become its own subsection of therapy. In art therapy, creating or examining art has helped those with mental health issues address and recognize feelings in their subconscious. Color has been shown to produce different effects in the human brain, whether calming (using colors such as blue and green) or energizing (red and orange). Adding art to the interior of the office helps to give employees a reprieve from the every day.


Biophilia has grown in relevance over the last few years, but for Frazier, copying the patterns of nature goes beyond using natural-looking materials.

When she’s out in nature, Frazier says she spends time really seeing the things around her. She jots down words that describe that moment, looks for patterns and pays attention to the more abstract aspects. This, she explains, is system thinking. “It’s about what’s right under your feet. Repeating Mother Nature is a good lesson on design.”

Instead of using natural or natural-appearing elements, Frazier looks for ways to integrate how nature makes one feel into the interior. The most important aspect she’s found when studying nature’s patterns is in the disorder. “[Nature is] orderly, but, not. It gives you permission to not be perfect,” she says.

Designing in ways that are asymmetric or allow a little wiggle room in order and perfection is the most natural thing in the world. What’s more: Dropping the façade of perfectionism gives employees the ability to accept and learn from mistakes and can help decrease anxiety.

Integrating Tactile Elements

It’s been shown that the more we integrate flat screens into our environments, the more people yearn for tactile elements. What’s more: Fidgeting or feeling objects with tactile elements or weight can help people focus more, particularly if they have anxiety or attention issues. Remember the popularity of the fidget-spinner?

Frazier takes the biophilic elements of design one step further by collecting large river rocks. After cleaning them, she arranges the rocks on her desk and other work surfaces. The rocks provide a beautiful detail, and she has found that people often absentmindedly pick up and play with them. By encouraging this minimal interaction, employees and visitors can act as they need to in order to concentrate or work in the environment — even if they do not notice these actions.

The Bottom Line

In the same way that design cornerstones like sustainability became incorporated into the practice of interiors, design for employee health and wellness is becoming mainstream. The movement is led by millennials and Gen Z professionals who have grown up aware of mental illness and in tune with their own needs.

Designers today also should understand that employee health and wellness is paramount in attracting and retaining employees. Frazier points to this change in societal expectations and said that employers who don’t take health and wellness into account will see struggles in the futures of their companies as current employees age out and retention rates drop.

What’s more, the WELL Building Standards and LEED v4  include mental health as a criteria for certification, showing that the building and design industries are placing more value on health and wellness in design.

Designing for mental health doesn’t mean the entire office needs to be remodeled. Instead, Frazier suggests taking inventory of what the company is already doing to see how health and wellness can be incorporated. For some, encouraging employees to take a walk may be all that’s needed, while other locations in the office can be reconfigured to provide collaborative and individual work spaces.

With small changes, we can ensure all interiors are healthy interiors.

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