Is your office killing you?

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You only have to search Google images with the key words “dilbert open plan” to find some Dilbert strips that make you giggle – I found the strips of May 31, 2011, November 2, 2012, May 14, 2003 and October 17, 1998 particularly funny.  But look down at some of the comments and it all gets a little more serious – on the most part, people don’t like working open plan.

All the Dilbert gags aside, I’ve just spent a few weeks carrying out a literature review into the health harms/benefits of different sorts of office.  It led me to conclude that this isn’t a laughing matter…

The short story is – depending in part on your personality and the particular nature of your work – but on the whole…

If your office is shared, larger and/or has a density that makes it feel crowded – your health is at risk.  Your health is more at risk if your own workspace in that office is further from a window, nearer to circulation areas and/or the distractions of shared facilities.  If you are by the window – especially if you have a green view – you seem to be protected a little.  If you have some control – over your own light, your own temperature, your own ventilation – then it helps again.  It gets worse if control is removed, for example you have no input into the decor of your office or you are told no personal items on your desk.

So, I’ve made a big claim there – where is my evidence?  Depending on the type of reader you are, you will be satisfied with different sorts of evidence.  For those who want to read it in semi-‘academic style’, please use this download which also seeks to draw out how differences in offices across the social gradient may contribute to health inequalities.

For others here is my summary…

Firstly, it is important to understand that stress leads to diseases associated with a shortened lifespan.  This is an explanation of physiology – the way in which your body responds to stress can lead to disease. Your body doesn’t discriminate according to the source of your stress – whether it is work life or home life creating it. If there is stress then your body responds – chemicals such as cortisol are released, you get fear and anxiety and perhaps headaches, sleeplessness and so on.  If the stressor goes away again – then all is well.  It’s when stress becomes prolonged that the trouble starts.  Your body adjusts – your ‘resting’ blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar adjust to a new higher level, your metabolism changes so you get a higher body mass index, your immune system is also affected.  If these secondary adjustments continue over time you are much, much more likely to get cardiovascular disease (e.g. heart attack, stroke); diabetes; or, depression.   Stress can make you irritable and more aggressive too – affecting the social relationships you can maintain.  It may also make you drink more, smoke more or seek out fattier, sweeter foods.  It is this mechanism that is the centre of a psycho-social focus on wellbeing and health – it adds to and complements explanations of ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle behaviours and genetics – and because ‘stresses’ are socially distributed (the lower down the social ladder you go the more likely it is that you will be exposed to stress and be vulnerable to it), it is a key explanation behind how health inequalities come about in less equal societies.

Now I don’t for a moment claim that a poor office environment is the ONLY work-related factor that contributes to poor wellbeing and health.  I guess I’m trying to say that to date it has been overlooked.  We commonly hear about how job design, job ambiguity, insecurity at work, lack of career prospects and so on create psychosocial stresses but offices don’t always get included in that list.  At a time when work insecurity is common and employers can do little about it – perhaps they need to pay more attention to getting the other things right to protecting wellbeing and health where they can, rather than adding to workplace pressures.

As I’ve read the literature, I’ve understood 6 ‘main’ features to be important to a healthy workspace…

1) enough space of the right type to do the job you do.  Crucially this isn’t always one space.  If you want to do quiet concentrated work you need a desk; if you need to interact to do a team task you need a different type of space; if you want to have a meeting you need a different type of space again.  When it comes to your ‘desk’ – you need to be able to spread out, not feel crowded, to have the papers you need to hand. You need to be psychologically comfortable – not feel crowded or ‘hemmed in’. Many people who want open plan offices say it is to help with interaction – but the research doesn’t bear that out.  When you are at your desk, you are there for concentrated work – you can go to other places for interaction (if employers have created them appropriately).

2) noise – noise is distracting, when you are doing concentrated work and you get distracted, it is stressful and you are less productive.  Noise could be computers, phones, AC units and so on – it could also be human voices.  Sudden noises distract the most.  Conversations, especially about irrelevant issues such as the football(!), are the worst.  The more people there are in your office – the more likelihood there is of noise.

3) light – it’s not just about light good enough for the task, it is about daylight (as long as you don’t get glare).  Being near a window is better – so much so that in the Netherlands they stipulate a 16 foot limit for anyone to be from a window.  Being near a window with a nice green view is even better.  If you don’t get enough light you can get seasonal affective disorder, headaches.  The larger the office, the more that access to natural daylight varies between people.

4) and 5) ventilation and temperature – Poor air quality and high temperatures are associated with ‘sick building syndrome’ symptoms.  They are things like dry lips, dry eyes and also headaches, tiredness – all of which sound a bit like symptoms of stress to me.  The right temperature is often personal choice – but in a shared room, no one individual has what makes them feel comfortable.

6) privacy – it’s stressful being overlooked and/or overheard.  You may avoid having the conversations you want to have.  You may avoid off-loading about stressful events to closer colleagues.  You may avoid making the awkward phone call you need to.  The larger your office, the more if feels like you are with strangers, the more you feel overlooked – the more stressful it is.

These factors are what I have come to understand as those associated with comfort and satisfaction in and with an office environment.  Discomfort and dissatisfaction create stress, they reduce emotional wellbeing and they can lead to health problems – they also affect motivation and productivity – so there are many reasons why employers should be finding this important.  But the signs aren’t good – in the name of efficiency savings – walls are coming down, desks are getting smaller, density is getting higher.

In the meantime, workplace health programmes focus on stop smoking posters; opportunities to have your blood pressure checked and if you are very, very lucky a cursory look at your canteen menu.  It’s time we think of the workplace as a setting – a place where physical and social factors interact to determine your wellbeing and health.

So I challenge you – look around – what are the offices you go into/work in doing to the health of the occupants?  Is there a social distribution in ‘office comfort’ with the higher paid with better facilities?  It is time you said something?

2 thoughts on “Is your office killing you?

  1. Well said Helen. I am certainly finding open plan more stressful and long for a little peace and quiet! I also find that interaction with colleagues is much less than when in a smaller office – so the idea of bringing teams together to “integrate” just isn’t being borne out – there are people in our office I have never spoken to!

  2. Mmm just noticed that Public Health England’s Priorities for 2013-2014 available at has this as one of just 5 priorities:

    “Improving health in the workplace by encouraging employers to support their staff, and those moving into and out of the workforce, to lead healthier lives”

    At first read you think ‘oh good’, but then when you read the phrasing it is entirely focussed on:
    a) healthy lifestyles
    b) what the staff are supported to do

    I know a number of people who have very healthy lifestyles – don’t smoke, keep within safe drinking limits, are physically active and so on – but it is their working conditions (including how power is exercised) that places the greatest risk to their wellbeing. This is the equivalent of telling a fish to be healthy and swim hard but keeping it in a dirty fish tank – there gets to a point when the fish cannot do anything more. Why on earth isn’t Public Health England taking a broader approach?

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