Are you in an unhealthy office relationship?
By Bonnie Berkowitz and Laura Stanton, Published: June 8, 2014
If you spend more waking hours in your office than with your significant other, you and your workspace had better be a good match. Studies have shown that office buildings aren't benign containers but active contributors to good — or poor — health, mood and productivity. Your office can do you right or wrong in many ways, till demolition do you part.
Can't change your office? Here's why you shouldn't just sit there and some things you can do instead.
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Leaving you gasping
“Sick building syndrome” is largely a relic of the 1970s and ’80s, when buildings were sealed for energy efficiency without proper filtration and ventilation. Even now, paint, carpet, furniture, pesticides and cleaning products can emit gases that affect air quality. A 2012 report concluded that 9 percent of asthma cases among adults who had ever been employed were work-related.
Providing a breath of fresh air
Modern systems circulate at least 20 cubic feet of fresh air per minute per person, four times the amount common in the sick-building era. Ultraviolet filters kill mold microbes on air conditioning coils. Buildings smell better without smoking rooms, and “green” cleaning supplies are more common. Some buildings have even gone retro, with windows that actually open.
Putting you in a bad light
Often, natural light gets no farther than window-hogging executive offices. Fluorescent tubes emit light that doesn't match the natural spectrum, reducing alertness, darkening mood and impairing nighttime sleep, said Kevin Kampschroer, an innovator in sustainable office design.
Letting the sunshine in
One of Kampschroer's mantras is “Democratize daylight.” Allowing sunlight to penetrate farther into work areas saves energy and enhances circadian rhythms as more people experience natural cycles in color and light quality. Shading, screens and blinds control glare and heat.
Ergonomics & Movement
Holding you back
Constant sitting is just one problem. A building’s design can encourage people to move, or not, said environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen. If your only options are laps around the cube farm or climbing the dank stairwell with the slimy handrail, you’re probably going to stay put.
Turning you loose
A workspace that lets you alternate between standing and sitting is a good start. Open staircases in sunny atriums encourage walking from floor to floor. Clever designers may hide the elevators, or program some to disallow short trips, Kampschroer said. Rooftop gardens make people want to get up and go.
Making you sick
A 2011 Danish study found that workers in open spaces took 62 percent more sick days than those in offices or high-walled cubicles.
Leaving you alone
Telecommuting can help by keeping people home when they’re just a little ill. Wash your hands often and reconsider the communal candy dish.
Running hot or cold
Heerwagen said that in tests of ambient temperature, half of all workers said they were too hot and half said they were too cold. Personal preference varies too much for a one-temperature-fits-all approach, especially in Washington, where some still wear wool suits in summer.
Staying just right
Cutting-edge offices are finding ways to allow every person to control the microclimate at his or her desk. Solutions can be simple, such as air diffusers that mitigate drafts and tiny fans and heaters, or as complex as wiring climate controls into every workspace.
Bringing in the noise
If a co-worker's phone rant or the copier’s whir puts you on edge, you are not alone. A 2010 study of white-collar workers found that background noise contributed to a measurable rise in stress as shown by heart rates, cortisol levels and an impaired ability to concentrate. Those high-walled cubicles give people a false sense of privacy.
Kampschroer said good office design allows people to escape noise but also gives them space to collaborate. Closed rooms should be available for phone calls or meetings, and laptops let people move together — or apart. People tend to be quieter in offices with low (or no) partitions, but those open plans that provide great light and airflow need ways to dampen noise.
Getting stuck in shades of gray
Monotone is bad decor. Even worse is a jarring jumble that rises to visual toxicity. (Yep, that’s a thing.) One building Heerwagen visited was plastered in so many clashing colors and abstract patterns that workers became physically ill.
Coloring your world
Some variety in color, pattern and texture is ideal, without descending into chaos. Heerwagen advocates biophilic design, using colors and patterns that are found in nature to reduce stress.
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