Workplace lighting – time to change the rules

Sponsored by Tamlite


How we light our workplaces today needs to start with looking at the historical situation – there simply wasn’t enough light. Without sufficient light to work, productivity can be significantly reduced. Electric light gave us a (relatively) cheap source of illumination and brought the first major change to the way that we were able to work indoors. Studies on lighting levels required for staff to work effectively and comfortably were carried out to ensure that employers provided enough light.

So we might say this formed the basis for the first rule of lighting: make sure that you have enough light for people to work by.

This initially presented as workplaces being advised to provide as much light as possible for staff, to enhance productivity. One thousand lux was recommended for offices by the Electricity Council, before a global energy crisis in the mid-1970s forced a review of the way electricity was used, promoting ‘energy conservation’. Lighting played its part by becoming more efficient, and has continued on that journey up to the present day, with LED luminaires achieving extraordinary levels of luminous efficacy.

And so that first rule changed: make sure that you ONLY have enough light to work by. Which brings us up to date.


What light is for – and why we were wrong

There’s a phrase that’s repeated in relation to both previous rules: ‘light to work by’. Recommended lighting levels have always been based on what’s needed to do work, and those recommendations have been crudely applied in some cases. Many employers have treated their employees simply as bolt-on extensions to their equipment, whether that is a typewriter, a lathe or a high-tech assembly line, with costs kept as low as possible to maintain profit margins. But new research proposes that we’ve been looking at the wrong metrics.

The lighting industry has helped to keep costs down. We’ve been chasing energy efficiency for the past 40 years and have performed many wonders. The problem is that while we’ve helped to slow down the consumption of fuel – which is a good thing – we’ve inadvertently created a fog around the wider view of where business money is really spent.

Light as a tool for better business

There is a new, simple infographic doing the rounds, and what this tells us suggests that we’ve had everything upside down for a long time.

For every £1 that a business spends:
1p goes on energy costs
9p goes on building costs
90p goes on the cost of staff

While we’ve been worrying about cutting costs to keep our margins up, it’s been quality of life for the workforce that has been costing real money. The research is saying that 90 per cent of business costs go in maintaining staff. And that includes things like higher training costs as a result of high staff turnover, the percentage of time lost due to high rates of absenteeism, and the financial drag on productivity resulting from poor morale.


The new rule for workplace lighting

Human-centric lighting, or lighting for wellbeing, is a new way of looking at how we use light to do work, and what the qualities of that light need to be in order to create a working environment where staff feel comfortable, secure and more engaged in the work that they (we!) do.

Lighting equipment needs to be fit for purpose in terms of the equipment itself and in the way that it’s used. Electronic flicker is a serious concern with LED lighting, so it’s important to ensure that good quality equipment is used, and the lighting design itself needs to be developed so that visual disturbances, such as glare and reflections, are properly controlled. And that’s before we get to the way that this new lighting regime can positively assist practices that support health and wellbeing.

Again, scientific research has pointed to where good lighting practice needs to go. Our 21st century lifestyle risks moving us further away from the ‘natural order of things’ and our relationship with it. An important aspect of human-centric lighting is to ensure that light patterns within our workplaces reflects the natural cycle of light and dark. Illumination levels and light colour are used dynamically throughout the working day as a way of maintaining our own internal body clocks. This is not about making anyone work beyond their capacity; this is a lighting method designed to enable all of us to work comfortably within our optimal capacity.

Human-centric lighting doesn’t come ‘out of the box’. It’s a bespoke system that is designed for specific spaces. And while human-centric lighting by itself can have a positive impact on the people working with it, the real benefits accrue when the lighting is a component part of the broader ergonomic metrics of the interior landscape – the air handling, workstation specification and location, and the relationship to natural daylight.


You can read more about Tamlite’s approach to human-centric lighting here.