Life
    Health

    Is your office making you ill? Why open-plan spaces aren’t good for our health

    4 March 2016

    It’s Monday morning, you’re already late and as you look across the open-plan office you see the last spare desk has a broken chair, a dodgy monitor and bits of someone’s lunch on the keyboard. If this sounds familiar you’ll probably agree that hot-desking offices can be pretty annoying. But actually, it’s worse than that: some evidence suggests that they can be bad for your health.

    Researchers from a sociological study at the University of Bedfordshire interviewed and observed 15 employees in a hot-desking office during 12 visits between 2004 and 2007. They reported that the loss of everyday desk ownership raised tensions and made people feel more isolated.

    What’s more, researchers observed a ‘hierarchy’ emerging between those who moved desks every day and those who cheated by arriving early or using their higher status to ensure they sat at the same desk.

    You spend most of your life with colleagues. Whatever worsens your relationships with them is likely to have a big impact.

    Overcrowding is bad for us, too. A study published by the journal Indoor Air reported that in small open-plan offices workers experienced greater levels of poor physical and mental health when they had to share space with more people.

    The authors interviewed 207 individuals with similar jobs about their working environment and health. They found that psychosocial stress — for example, perceived threats to an individual’s self-worth — appeared to be most strongly associated with poor health.

    Another study by a team from Surrey and Exeter universities looked at hot-desking in the finance sector and found it disrupted a sense of solidarity: workers stopped identifying with their team and began to place a higher value on email rather than face-to-face communication with their colleagues.

    In light of these findings the trade union Unison is against hot-desking. For permanent employees it should be ‘avoided where possible’, the union says. If that’s not possible, employees should be given anti-bacterial wipes and spray to clean up any dirty keyboards.

    This reflects a worry that hot-desking workers are being exposed to a greater risk of colds and gastrointestinal diseases. (Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about hot desking and infectious disease to be certain of this.)

    Another of Unison’s concerns is that hot-desks may increase the risk of physical injury like lower back pain or pain in the arms, hands or fingers caused by chairs, desks and computers not being set up properly.

    It is unlikely, though, that organisations will abandon hot-desking on the basis of the current evidence. In the meantime you’ll have to adjust your chair, decontaminate your desk and, if all else fails, just sneak in early.