FEELING lethargic and sluggish at work lately? Find it hard to concentrate or to get motivated?

You might think you need more caffeine or nicotine but the problem could lie with the amount of stimulation your senses are receiving.

While research into the working environment usually focuses on health and safety issues such as air quality or the position of your VDU, more and more employers are waking up to the importance of the so-called “soft” elements of the working environment.

They include subjects like the quality of lighting, the colour schemes and the amount of background noise.

Although dull grey walls, strip lights and humming air conditioning can be annoying, more seriously they impact on stress levels and affect our performance.

Indeed, one in three office staff believe their working environment is making them feel stressed, according to a new report.

A survey of 1,000 workers by law firm Eversheds showed many complained about a lack of natural light and the state of office equipment, complaining of a negative impact on their productivity.

One in five of those questioned described their office environment as “below average” or “very poor”, with office equipment being described as “outdated”.

One in 10 said they had resigned from their job because of poor office environment.

According to Derek Clements-Croome, Professor in Construction Management at Reading University and the author of a book titled Creating The Productive Workplace, sensory deprivation can be just as costly as flu in terms of absenteeism and poor productivity.

“Employers are beginning to realise that, while the basic health and safety issues, such as proper computer use, are important, there’s a lot more that can be done to improve the working environment,” he explains.

“Buildings can still be very unsatisfactory places to work because they don’t stimulate the senses in a satisfactory way.”

But what kind of stimulation are we talking about? Your idea of stimulation might be the flashing lights and pounding beats of the Ritzy Night-spot on a Saturday evening but your company is unlikely to feel the same way.

All the same, the techniques being employed to prod employees’ senses are becoming increasingly sophisticated.

Take our noses, for example. Plenty of people sing the praises of aromatherapy in the home. But a growing number of employers are sniffing out the possibility of using it to boost productivity levels and reduce stress in the workplace.

The trend has really taken off in Japan, where organisations such as the Tokyo-based Shiatzu company have developed their own computer-controlled system to waft fragrance through the office air conditioning.

Different scents are used for different purposes, and times of day. Lemon grass and geranium are said to energise and refresh, while soothing jasmine works wonders for the concentration.

In one Japanese study, researchers found that when air was scented with jasmine, errors by keyboard operators fell by 33 per cent. Facts like that would seem to speak for themselves but workplace aromatherapy hasn't quite caught on in the UK yet.

“There is interest but there’s still a degree of cynicism,” says Prof Clements-Croome. “And there may be more resistance over here from employees who dislike the idea of having their nasal space invaded.”

Developments in lighting technology have been more enthusiastically embraced. For workers who toil away far from natural daylight – such as night shift workers or those who work in entirely confined spaces – the physical effects of daylight deprivation can be debilitating.

“Basically, the quality of light during the various stages of the day, from bright in the morning to softer or cooler in the evening, help us adjust our body clocks,” says Prof Clements-Croome. “When you remove that, you quickly become disorientated.”

In response to this, some companies have introduced intelligent lighting systems that mimic both the quality and changing patterns of daylight.

The Sivra system by Italian lighting manufacturer iGuzzini has attracted a lot of interest. With a variety of bulbs and computer-controlled dimmers, it can be programmed to emulate a summer’s day in Malaysia or a winter's day in Woolwich – whatever is required.

The system has proved particularly popular with air-traffic controllers and scientists toiling away in windowless laboratories. It has even been used in conference centres to combat the post-lunch slump so familiar to dozy delegates.

Prof Clements-Croome also believes colour therapy may soon become commonplace in British offices, with different shades being projected onto walls throughout the day.

Meanwhile, our ears have come in for attention too. Some companies have taken steps to cut down the hum of photocopiers, faxes and air conditioning systems, while others have even taken steps to increase background noise.

It’s all part of a growing awareness of the role of the five senses in creating a satisfying workplace, says Prof Clements-Croome.

“Stimulation can take many forms but research suggests that when you switch on the five senses, people are more fulfilled, feel better and work better.”

Cornelius Medvei, senior partner at Eversheds, adds: “In a challenging economic climate, this report highlights a key area in which businesses can make improvements to boost morale and increase productivity.

“The standard of the office is one place that employers can control and, if UK businesses are to remain competitive, we need to ensure that we are investing in and creating an optimum working environment.

“An office doesn’t have to be a collection of little boxes – taking down some of the walls and letting in the light can have an extraordinary impact on the mood of a workforce.”