Science Says Open Offices Might Make Us Sick

Another reason to loathe the open office.

There are plenty of reasons to hate the open office plan. Open offices are loud. They make it hard to focus. And, according to new research, they might make us sick.

A recent study in the journal Ergonomics used longitudinal data to compare sick leave rates among 1,852 Swedish employees working in different types of offices: open offices of different sizes, private offices, shared private offices, flexible layouts with meeting rooms but no individual workstations, and more. Surprise! Open offices, where there are few barriers between you and your colleague's every whisper, sneeze and cough, result in "significant excess risk" for needing to take sick leave. The effect was particularly prevalent among women, although for men, flex-offices were particularly associated with more short-term sick leave.

Image: Open office via Shutterstock

Why that may be, the researchers can't yet say, but they do have some hypotheses. It could be related to environmental factors, like the fact that excess noise, lack of privacy, and the inability to control your personal environment stress people out. It could just be that the risk of infection increases when you throw a bunch of people together. Or, the researchers postulate, it could be that group dynamics in different office types influence whether people take days off or not--employees may be less willing to take a sick day if they work in a very small office where their coworkers depend heavily on their participation, versus in a large open office.

Before you revolt and declare your desk a health hazard, there are a few reasons to take these findings with a grain of salt. The study was based on self-reported data from two surveys, in 2010 and 2012, asking people about how often they took sick leave in the past 12 months. Maybe someone forgot about the week she was out with the flu, or remembered one day of food poisoning feeling more like seven. It also didn't control for the baseline health of the participants. So it's hard to point to the open office as the cause of employees taking sick days. The researchers caution that "the results of this explorative study should only be viewed as a first step in the investigation of the long-term effect of the office environment's impact on employee sickness absence."

But it's not hard to imagine that all those serendipitous collegial encounters might spread germs as well as ideas.

[H/T: Medical Express]

[Image: Sneeze via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Reading this piece, I can't help but wonder why it was even published. It should have been relegated to the dead-file area under the title: "interesting idea awaiting evidence." I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but the title is sensational at best and bordering on irresponsible. I expect better from FastCo...

  • Let's all just live in our own little bubbles then, shall we?

    Could one of the major factors possibly be that modern buildings have sealed environments with mechanical extract & supply with little or no natural ventilation?

    Or how about the fact that modern cities are generally constantly increasing in population with more people in close proximity throughout the day (ever been on the London Underground during rush hour?)

    'study was based on self-reported data from two surveys...' doesn't get much less scientific than that.

    Nonsense report fueling the current U.S led revolt against open-plan. Bring back cubicles or even better, corner offices - right guys?

    Nonsensical headline-grabbing piece.