For Jennifer Veitch, PhD, the dimly lit office cubicle represents an opportunity. As senior research officer at the National Research Council of Canada, in Ottawa, Veitch investigates how indoor lighting affects employee well-being and productivity, and how employee behaviors affect the use of resources and energy. Her findings and recommendations have been used by architects, building planners, engineers and lighting designers to help them create functional workspaces that provide adequate light for emotional and physical health.
Energy Efficiency Versus Illumination
When Veitch began her lighting research 20 years ago, the field's main concern was the introduction of computers to the workplace.
"The big issue was controlling glare and lighting conditions for screens," she says.
To prevent eyestrain from monitors, newly designed lighting equipment directed light to the desk surface and away from the walls and monitors, creating unpleasant, cave-like conditions for office employees. As monitor technology became more user-friendly — through flat screens and other developments — Veitch turned her attention to other aspects of indoor lighting. She researched ways to reduce energy use through advanced lighting controls and investigated how lighting affects employee happiness.
Your Office, Yourself
Veitch's current research looks at how light affects cognition, stress and well-being, incorporating elements of industrial-organizational psychology, sensory psychophysics, and social psychology. She recently completed a study that demonstrated that when people have control over the lighting in their work spaces, their moods are more upbeat, they are more committed to their employers and they have overall improved well-being. Individually controlled lighting also reduces lighting energy use by 10 percent, she found.
And handing over lighting control to employees is a relatively easy change for companies to implement, Veitch says. "While not the be-all/end-all solution to promoting organizational effectiveness, it doesn't require retraining to work," she says.
Such findings help her convince engineers and managers that not everyone is the same. "Psychologists are all about appreciating individual differences," she says.
Veitch's job also involves making lighting recommendations to international commissions involved with architecture and design regulations, and even occasionally helps shape public policy regarding employee health and building specifications. Her team presents research at conferences and in scientific journals, but she also gives talks at industry events and publishes articles in trade magazines. This work has also led to new product development and licensing for the technology behind such improvements, such as integrated lighting controls.
Communication is a central part of her job, whether Veitch is recommending design changes to engineers or architects, or explaining her findings to employers, building managers and superintendents.
How She Got There
Veitch says she is "probably the one person I know who is doing what I wanted to do when I got excited about psychology in the first place."
To prepare for her career, she took classes at the University of Victoria in a wide variety of fields, including neuroscience, social psychology and environmental psychology.
Veitch also took a theater-lighting class to learn about how illumination works on a technical level. "It taught me about inter-reflections of light in space, how shadows and contrast affect appearance, and how message and mood can be communicated using light." She learned a bit about the technical details of the lighting equipment itself, but says an architectural lighting course would have been more useful, had there been one.
That interdisciplinary training paid off. Today, Veitch works with experts including engineers, architects and biologists. Working with such a diverse array of experts can be challenging, but the rewards are worth it, she says.
"Environmental psychologists can see their work applied in so many different ways," she says. "The challenge is in developing a common language to talk about and to understand that there is this physical world around us, and it affects us."
Emily Wojcik is a writer in Northampton, Mass.
Watch Psychologist Jennifer Veitch Explain her Lighting Research
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