Is your job making you ill?

A large proportion of our time each week is spent in work. But how is your working environment affecting your health?

Whether you work in an office, a hospital, a school or on an aeroplane, the environment that you work in and the hours that you spend on the job will have an impact on your wellbeing and health. But what are our modern work environments and changing shift patterns doing to our bodies?

Open plan offices

According to research by Ipsos and the Workplace Futures Team at Steelcase, 85 per cent of people working in open plan offices are dissatisfied with their working environment and find it hard to concentrate. Despite 95 per cent of people saying that working privately is important to them, only 41 per cent said that there were able to do so and nearly a third of workers reported having to leave their open plan office environment in order to get work completed.

The study found that office workers were losing 86 minutes every day due to distractions and many were unmotivated, unproductive and overly stressed due to their working environments that they claimed left them little capacity to think or work creatively and constructively.

A separate study from Canada Life Group Insurance also found that open plan offices are detrimental to workers’ health, wellbeing and productivity. Just 6.1 per cent of workers said that they thought an open plan office was health and 6.5 per cent thought it was a productive environment to work in.

The survey also revealed that those who work in open plan offices took more than 70 per cent more sick days than those who work from home. This is could be caused by people going to work, even when sick – a study from the University of Arizona found that someone going into the office when sick infects about half of the commonly touched surfaces such as telephones, desktops, tabletops, doorknobs, photocopier, lift buttons and office fridge by lunchtime.

Despite this, many businesses still opt to operate open plan offices as a move towards a more collaborative working environment spreads through industries.

Night shifts

It has long been known that working the night shift is not the ideal situation for the human body. The circadian rhythms that rule the body respond to light and tell us that we should be sleeping in the dark, not working through the night. The 15 million Americans who work the night shift could tell us all a thing or two about the impact of working overnight on the body – from tiredness, to run down immune systems, to even more serious health impacts.

A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that women who had worked rotating night shifts for more than five years experienced a shorter expected lifespan and an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. After working these shifts for more than 15 years, the women were also more likely to die of lung cancer.

In a separate study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researches followed 22 people as their body was shifted from a normal pattern to that of a night shift worker. Blood tests showed that normally six per cent of genes – the instructions contained in DNA – were precisely timed to be more or less active at specific time of the day. Once the volunteers were working through the night, that genetic fine-tuning was lost.

Researcher Prof Derk-Jan Dijk said every tissue in the body had its own daily rhythm, but with shifts that was lost with the heart running to a different time to the kidneys running to a different time to the brain. He told the BBC: "It's chrono-chaos. It's like living in a house. There's a clock in every room in the house and in all of those rooms those clocks are now disrupted, which of course leads to chaos in the household."

Frequent flyers

Whether you travel for work or actually work on the plane, taking long haul flights on a regular basis can cause your body clock to become out of kilter, which can trigger psychotic and mood disorders. Many cabin crew report a decreased cognitive performance and health issues.

While there is much advice on how to avoid jet lag, there is no way of completely preventing it. Although advice from the NHS suggests that being well hydrated before the flight and drinking plenty of fluids and also napping during the flight helps – although, that advice isn’t much use to cabin crew who have a job to do while in the air.

"Over 97 per cent of rhythmic genes become out of sync with mistimed sleep and this really explains why we feel so bad during jet lag, or if we have to work irregular shifts," said Dr Simon Archer, a researcher at the University of Surrey.

However, for workers who are visiting a new time zone for a short period of time only – generally fewer than three days – the best advice is to stay on the 'home time zone'.

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