Open-plan offices have been the workspace solution many businesses have opted for in recent years. They increase collaboration, creativity, enable employees to work closer together, and promote a more fun working environment. But what are open-plan offices doing to our health?
According to a 2014 study, people who work in open-plan offices – especially women – are more likely to take short term sick leave (of one week or less) than those who work in private offices. The same study also found that for men, the worst office layout was an open-plan office where no-one had set workstations, which caused them to take more sick days.
While obviously the ability of germs to travel through the air in an open-plan office will have an effect on how illness spreads around a workforce, the study said that that isn’t the only issue in an open-plan office. In fact, the researchers suggested that things like background noise and lack of visual privacy both have an impact on our physical health. They explain that whenever you’re in a public setting, such as an open-plan office, your body’s fight-or-flight mechanism is on permanent standby, even if you’re completely unaware of it. This has an impact on your adrenal glands and, consequently, your immune system – making you more vulnerable to illness.
However, it is of course the spread of germs that is a real issue in open-plan offices and a study by the University of Arizona looked at the effect of someone coming into the office when sick – and confirmed most people’s fears. Researchers found that by lunchtime about half of the commonly touched surfaces such as telephones, desktops, tabletops, doorknobs, photocopiers, lift buttons, and the office fridge will become infected with the virus. So you could be forgiven for following your sneezing colleague around with a pack of anti-bacterial wipes.
“It really is a common sense thing,” John Noti, a microbiologist who researches infectious disease transmission for the Centers for Disease Control, told Vice. “People are slobs and will cough and breathe on your and touch your space. So if you’re physically separated by something, where people don’t have access to your workspace, it’s logical that you will be less likely to get infected.
“If you’re in a workspace where all of your desks are together then you cough, those small lung droplets which contain flu could conceivably travel to the person sitting next to you maybe even five or six feet away from you.”
One major issue that many large companies suffer from that only makes the situation worse is ‘presenteeism’, where employees feel they need to be physically in work at all times. For whatever reason – whether a sense of loyalty to a team, a concern that deadlines will be missed, or a fear that taking a sick day will be held against them – employees are increasingly taking less time off sick, even when they probably should be. According to a 2015 survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), a third of firms reported a rise in employees working when they’re sick.
However, the only way that is going to change is from the top down, according to chief executive of the CIPD Peter Cheese. “If businesses want employees who are engaged and motivated, then employees need to feel that their organisation, their managers and bosses are supporting them, and not pressuring them to work when they are not properly fit,” he says. “Employees won’t feel empowered to take time off when they’re sick if their manager’s behaviour runs counter to that.”