Is your office making you sick?

Whether it's the commute or simply the way you sit, many workers are unwittingly putting their health at risk.

Whether it's the commute or simply the way you sit, many workers are unwittingly putting their health at risk. Photo: Getty Images

It's what many of us desk-jockeys have long suspected: working in an office isn't good for your health. It's almost as though the modern office has been finely calibrated specifically to make us unwell – or even finish us off – in dozens of ways.

The problems start long before you arrive at work. Commuting is a killer, and the longer your trip, the worse it gets.

A study at Washington University in the US examined the car journeys of more than 4000 commuters. The researchers found that those who were commuting 10 miles (16 kilometres) each day had a greater chance of having high blood pressure. If the commute was 15 miles (24 kilometres) or more, the chances of the worker being obese or overweight also increased.

"The study was the first to show that long commutes can take away from exercise and are associated with higher weight, lower fitness levels and higher blood pressure, and all of these are strong predictors of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers," lead researcher Christine Hoehner says.


This all comes on the back of a large body of research showing how bad commuting is in many other ways, from increasing the chances of recurrent neck and back pain to being associated with a higher level of divorce. A 2010 survey in the US also demonstrated the toll that long-distance commuting can have on emotional well-being, with respondents reporting higher general levels of anxiety the further they travelled to work.

Even if you survive the commute to arrive at your office in reasonable health, more horrors await. The humble office chair, for instance, is increasingly implicated in a catalogue of health problems.

Obviously, sitting means you are largely inactive and therefore not burning many calories, but the problems go much deeper than that.

Standing – even standing still – requires tiny muscle contractions that do vital work processing fats and sugars in the bloodstream. Park yourself in a padded swivel chair and all that unseen activity stops almost immediately.

There is plenty of evidence now that sitting for prolonged periods is closely associated with many nasties, including heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and even blood clots.

But if the chair doesn't get you, you've still got to survive the effects of your boss.

Irritating or incompetent managers are, from time to time at least, a fact of life in any workplace. However, having a tyrant in the corner office can also have a serious effect on your health.

A study by the Stockholm-based Stress Research Institute found that working for a dud boss meant employees were 60 per cent more likely to have a heart attack. Conversely, there have also been plenty of other studies associating good leadership with reduced stress among workers and, consequently, fewer health problems.

Even if you have the world's best boss, just putting in long hours at the office can be fatal. The Whitehall II study, set up in 1985 by a team from University College London, followed more than 6000 middle-aged public servants in Britain. It makes sobering reading for any workaholic who prides themselves on being chained to their desk. Long periods in the office – up to 11 hours a day – are closely associated with heart disease.

Meanwhile, the layout of your office may also be causing you harm. Open-plan design is now the rule for most office buildings, with the idea that putting workers in one big room will magically build corporate culture and encourage efficient teamwork. But there's mounting evidence to show the open-plan dream is not all it's cracked up to be.

A 2008 study by Queensland University of Technology researcher Vinesh Oommen rounded up much of the published research and found working in an open-plan office was associated with high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure and high staff turnover.

"Research evidence shows employees face a multitude of problems, such as the loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, overstimulation and low job satisfaction, when working in an open-plan environment," Oommen says in his report.

So if our offices are making us sick – killing us, even – what's to be done? There have been myriad attempts to make offices better for us. Initiatives such as the introduction of more plants (greenery has positive effects on mental health, as well as "cleaning" the air) and "standing desks", plus subsidised gyms and facilities such as bike parking and showers, can all help.

But, increasingly, it seems much of the answer may lie in using technology to unshackle us from the desk, for at least some of the working week. Teleworking or telecommuting allows workers to do their jobs remotely, either from home or from local "hubs".

Research conducted last year by Colmar Brunton and Deloitte Access Economics showed 68 per cent of employees would consider switching jobs to be allowed to do at least some telework.

One of the main health advantages comes from cutting out the commute, which in turn can reduce stress for parents forced to juggle work, transport and family.

Catherine Raffaele, a researcher at the University of Sydney's Workplace Research Centre, says telework can give employees control.

"One of the great potential benefits is greater control over your life," she says. "There is quite a lot of evidence on the importance of control in moderating stress."

Working remotely can also give work to those who are not capable of travelling to an office. "Telework has the potential to increase participation in groups for whom travelling to the office is not possible on a daily basis," Raffaele says. "That's not just people with a disability, it can also include parents and people looking after elderly parents."

And, as for the stigma attached to working from home – or "shirking" from home, as some would have it – most studies show home or remote workers are more productive than their desk-bound colleagues.


Open-plan or boxed in: it's back to the future

Like so much in business, styles of office layout and design have come and gone over the years, with old concepts often becoming new again as thinking changes.

In the beginning was Frederick Taylor, an American engineer whose big idea at the dawn of the 20th century was "scientific management".

"Taylorism" was all about rational efficiency, which translated into big open-plan offices, with desks arranged with military precision amnd workers concentrating on one repetitive task. The bosses looked on from glass-walled private offices. None of this sounds like fun, but one gets the impression fun wasn't too high on Taylor's agenda.

In the 1950s, the Germans got in on the office-design act with a layout called burolandshaft, which was an egalitarian open-plan style. This "office landscape" was supposedly more human and promoted the free exchange of ideas.

By the '80s, the barriers had gone up again – literally – and the sea of cubicles so beloved of Dilbert was born. Cubicles were the kind-of office you had when you didn't have an office. Strictly hierarchical, the higher your walls and the bigger your cubicle the greater your importance in the corporate pecking order.

Now in the age of the internet, the virtual office and the "hot-desk" are in vogue. Video conferencing allows "virtual teams" to get together across town – or across countries. Hot-desking workers don't come to the office every day, and when they do, they grab any available desk in their "neighbourhood" to plug in their laptop.