Can Your Open-Plan Office Make You Sick?

05.01.2014
HR & Safety

Experts say yes and offer several possible reasons

According to a study in the journal Ergonomics, workplace layout has a surprising effect on rates of sick leave.

Four Stockholm University scientists examined data from nearly 2,000 employees working in seven different types of offices, focusing on the number of short- and long-term illnesses the employees had, as well as their total days out sick each year.

Findings and Analysis

The researchers found a “significant excess risk” of short sick-leave spells in three types of open-plan offices, especially among women. They also found a higher prevalence of both short sick-leave spells and a higher number of sick days among men in flex-offices: 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,” a conclusion long suspected by employees who work in them.

Why this should be so is not entirely clear, but environmental stresses (including being exposed to “irrelevant sound,” the lack of “visual privacy,” and a reduced ability to control one’s own personal space), as well as the risk of infection, the types of jobs done in open-plan offices, and group dynamics might all play a part. 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: employees coming to work when they’re actually ill.

Why Doesn’t the Open-Plan Office Work?

Numerous studies over the last several decades have shown that open-plan offices not only fail to provide the hoped-for benefits–more effective communication, camaraderie, and greater team cohesion–they have actually resulted just the opposite: less communication among employees, reduced employee motivation, greater employee stress, more resentment and emotional distance among employees, and lower productivity.

Why don’t open-plan offices work? Distractions caused by noise and more frequent interruptions, as well as the lack of privacy and control over one’s environment are just some of the reasons cited in the research.

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