Is It Your Coworkers or Your Office That Is Making You Sick?

Feb. 25, 2014
A new study suggests our coworkers or fellow commuters are not responsible for spreading viruses. The real culprits might be the architects and interior designers who are responsible for our office space.

“Office Design's Impact on Sick Leave Rates,” a study published in Ergonomics of nearly 2,000 employees working in various office environments found that the design and layout of workplaces have a surprising impact on the amount of sick time employees take.

Four Stockholm University scientists – Christina Bodin Danielsson, Holendro Singh Chungkham, Cornelia Wulff and Hugo Westerlund – examined data from employees working in seven different types of offices: single-room office; shared-room office (2-3 workers in the room); small, open-plan office (4-9 workers); medium-sized, open-plan office (10-24 workers); large, open-plan office (more than 24 workers); flex-office (no individual workspaces); and combi-office (less than 20 percent of the workforce is not at individual workstations, team-based work structure). Key to their research was the number of short- and long-term illnesses the employees had, as well as their total sick days taken each year.

After crunching the numbers, the researchers found a “significant excess risk” of short-duration sick-leaves in three types of open-plan offices, especially among women. The study also revealed a higher prevalence of both short sick-leaves and a higher number of sick days among men in flex-offices, which are the open-plan layouts with no individual workstations (but some meeting rooms).

Evidence from this and other studies confirms that in general, “traditional, open-plan offices are less good for employee health,” something long suspected by employees.

It’s not just the spread of germs, noted researchers, but also other aspects of open workspaces, such as environmental stresses (including being exposed to “irrelevant sound,” the lack of “visual privacy” and a reduced ability to control personal space). Researchers also noted that the types of jobs done in open-plan offices and group dynamics might all play a part in the number of sick days taken by employees.

As the authors note, group dynamics have been shown to have a preventative effect on sick leave in small offices, and can even lead to “presenteeism,” which is employees coming to work when they’re ill and probably should stay home.    

This fascinating study is an important initial investigation into the long-term effects of the modern office environment on employees. It prepares the ground for longer future studies more focused on the office environment itself – with all its complex physical, psychosocial and organisational factors. Expanding this line of research is important because, in the words of its authors, “with such knowledge of the office environment’s influence on different dimensions of employee health, important gains can be achieved in the long run.” For their sake, and the progress of their upcoming research, let’s hope that the Stockholm team isn’t working in an open-plan office.

Lack of Studies About Sick Leave and White Collar Workers

The authors of the study noted that “although the different negative effects of sickness absence is fairly well researched, there is a lack of studies concerning the determinants of sickness absence among white-collar workers, despite the fact that they make up the majority of the workforce in the Western world today.”

They noted that a potential relationship between the physical office environment and rates of sick leave was under-studied. “We know from empirical studies that absenteeism is related to job characteristics such as high work demands, poor job control, monotonous work and so on,” the authors wrote, adding, “There are gender differences in sickness absence – both in terms of risk factors and rates, with higher rates among.”

Researchers said that the office environment had an impact on health and wellbeing for several reasons:

  • The need for personal control over the surrounding environment is considered fundamental for human well-being.
  • Personal control is strongly related to office employees' environmental
  • The perception of privacy is important to employees.
  • Distraction from noise (“irrelevant sound”) and other factors can contribute to absenteeism.

“Differences in health status between employees in various office types have been found, with the best health among those in flex-offices and [single] offices, and the worst in medium-sized, open-plan offices,” said researchers. “The explanation for the equally good health in the former two – very different – office types could be that they both enable personal control, albeit through different means.”

Impact of Office Type on Absence

The purpose of the article was to investigate whether office type has a prospective effect on employees' sickness absence. The environmental factors in an office can be classified as physical, psychosocial and organizational, noted researchers, which may have an impact on employees. Recognizing this, they applied a more comprehensive definition of office type, so that in addition to the number of employees sharing workspace, it also examined the opportunity to exert personal control in the different types of offices.

“The cumulative evidence thus indicates that traditional open-plan offices are less good for employee health,” concluded researchers. “There could be several explanations for this. The risk of infection could be higher among people sharing workspace; the exposure to environmental stressors, such as noise; and less ability for personal control in traditional office open-plan offices. The non-significant tendency for better outcomes on sickness absence in [single] offices and combi-offices could indicate that high personal control and low risks for infection in the former and strong social coherence and peer control in the latter may decrease the risk of absenteeism.”

Positive aspect of social control could be that people are more missed when absent in a small group due to a better visual overlook and a greater concern for team members. It could also be that the individual's work effort is more noticeable or that the individual is less easily replaceable in a smaller work group or team, due to a greater dependence on each other.

The study was published by Taylor & Francis in collaboration with the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.

About the Author

Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the former content director of EHS Today, and is currently the EHSQ content & community lead at Intelex Technologies Inc. She has written about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990.

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