The modern-day office is a testament to corporate productivity, with more of us than ever before working within them. At the same time, however, working in an office can be surprisingly bad for your health. Stress, aches and pains, a weakened immune system and increased risk of heart attack can all be traced back to the office environment.
In this article, we speak to Matt Durkin from Simply Supplements on how you can you make your office a healthier place for employees…
Ditch Open Plan Working
For many of us, open plan offices have become the standard working environment. Many corporations believe that they foster a more collaborative environment while reducing the cost of having individual cubicles. If we’re honest, many senior managers also support their use because it is easier to keep an eye on workers, ensuring that they’re working on the next management accounts rather than flirting on Facebook.
Sadly, research has demonstrated that open-plan offices are far from healthy for the team members working in them. Many office workers cite a lack of privacy and control over their working environment as key causes of stress. Worse, the air circulating through such offices – where individuals cannot control their own air temperature – has been shown to contribute to health conditions in workers. Studies show, for example, that significantly more workers in open-plan offices report headaches, sore throats, coughs and eye irritations.
To make your employees happier – as well as healthier – give them a little privacy and consider setting up cubicles. The research suggests that productivity should see a rapid improvement, offsetting many of the costs associated with such a venture.
Reduce Noise Pollution
Another problem with open plan offices is how one single conversation has the potential to put the entire office off their work.
In a fascinating study, office workers were asked to complete mentally taxing problems while the noise level around them was artificially modified. Compared to working in silence, the simulated noise from an open plan office resulted in lower levels of motivation, with mathematical puzzles more quickly being dismissed as “too difficult”.
Interestingly, it was also found that these workers in noisy offices also tended to change their posture less regularly, which in itself can increase the onset of joint problems.
If your team is required to work on complex tasks, having a “quiet space” can, therefore, make all the difference.
Open the Windows
Air conditioning may make life bearable on hotter days, but for many office workers, such as circulating air systems are fraught with health risks. For example, one study asked 7000 workers in dozens of office buildings across the USA to complete a health questionnaire, together with reporting on the physical characteristics of their office building. They found a clear correlation between air-conditioned buildings and the prevalence of sickness.
It seems that such systems don’t just move air around – they also pump viruses and bacteria around the office too. As a result, one sick member of staff can rapidly infect dozens of others.
Instead of this forced air movement, allow employees to open up a window for some fresh air. The more control your employees have over their office environment, the happier they’re likely to be too.
Clean More Often
With many workers spending 8 hours or more at their desk each day, its little wonder that the dirt can start to build up. Office environments often aren’t conducive to cleanliness either, as equipment and furniture can sit around for years barely seeing polish or detergent.
The impact of these housekeeping glitches can have a surprisingly large impact on health. Studies have found, for example, that there is a direct correlation between dust levels and eye irritation. Upper respiratory problems like coughs and colds were also associated with microscopic fungi which can grow on dust particles, especially that in older furniture.
So, don’t assume that a cursory whip round with a duster when you remember is enough. Instead, invest in a cleaner who can thoroughly cleanse all surfaces on a regular basis. Additionally, don’t forget to deep clean heavily-used areas on a regular basis, such as shampooing (or replacing) carpets and office chairs, and sterilizing keyboards, mice and telephones.
Does nature have any impact on office workers? If the science is to believe then the answer is a very strong “yes”. It seems the cold, clinical, impersonal offices that so many of us are used to may be doing more harm than good. Introducing a little greenery here and there can subsequently be highly beneficial.
One fascinating study asked office workers to complete health surveys over an extended period of time as houseplants were added and then removed from the office building. The results showed an astonishing 23% drop in problems associated with itchy skin, runny noses, sore throats and fatigue.
It seems that bringing a little greenery into the office can have a significant impact on the health of your workers. You might even want to allow your team to decorate their new office cubicles with their own choice of a houseplant. And to think; that gnarled cheese plant you threw away could be helping to improve office health.
It has been said in recent years that “sitting is the new smoking” as sedentary behavior is associated with all manner of potentially serious health conditions including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Long periods of sitting down are also associated with an increased risk of joint problems such as bad backs or neck pain.
One interesting study tried installing so-called sit-stand desks, which can be raised or lowered easily, allowing workers to stand up at their desks when desired. They found that such an installation on average led to 5 additional minutes of physical activity every hour worked. Surveying the study participants, they reported increased energy, combined with reduced appetite and calorie intake. Combined, these are all positive impacts of simply encouraging your team not to sit motionless for hours on end in front of their computer.
Whether you opt to install some radical new desks or to try a rather more holistic solution, finding ways to encourage your team to stay active during the day – even if it’s just a five minute walk every hour or so – can make a very real impact on their health.
Encourage Time in the Sun
Vitamin D plays a number of crucial roles in the body, from helping to keep your skeleton strong, to maintaining a healthy immune system. Vitamin D deficiencies are therefore a very bad thing. Historically such deficiencies were rare; most workers spent considerable time outdoors, where the sun’s rays stimulate the production of vitamin D.
The office workers of today are at something of a disadvantage, secluded indoors as we are for much of the week. Indeed, the peak hours of sunshine are almost always spent in an artificial office environment, making deficiencies more likely.
One study measured vitamin D concentrations in Australia – surely one of the warmest and sunniest environments possible. Even here, however, they found that vitamin D deficiencies are “very prevalent in office workers even in summertime”.
There are two solutions, therefore. Firstly, encourage your team to get outside when they can. Perhaps encourage employees outdoors by installing comfortable benches and tables or creating an attractively landscaped garden area. A second, rather less exciting option, is to encourage your team to take vitamin D supplements to avoid deficiency. Aiming for 10mcg per day is a great target recommended by most health professionals.
Most office environments today post a wealth of different risks to health. Fortunately, things don’t necessarily have to be that way. As we’ve seen, experts have identified a host of different ways to make your office more conducive to good health, from encouraging staff to move around, to adding plants, improving air movement and giving team members more control over their direct office environment. Even better, of course, while such changes may require some modest investment of time and/or money, they should not only reduce work absences due to sickness but also have the potential to improve workplace satisfaction and productivity.