When we think of the dangers of the workplace, the office worker is perhaps not the first person who springs to mind. After all, it’s not exactly working at great heights or climbing down mineshafts for a living. It’s true; office work may not be the most physically dangerous of trades. However, there are plenty of ways the typical office environment -probably much like the one you are sitting in right now- can take its toll on our health.
And what a toll. According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE), some 1.2 million people suffered a work-related illness in the years 2014-2015 in Great Britain- resulting in 27.3 million working days lost due to sickness and absence. But perhaps the most alarming figure from the HSE is this: the estimated cost of ill health in the UK as a direct result of working conditions is US$17.5 billion.
So this is a critical health and financial problem to solve. The British Safety Council estimates medical disorders that are related to poor working environments cost the UK economy almost $130 billion every year. It doesn’t take a genius to ponder the kind of figures we might be talking about here in the UAE, where the sedentary lifestyle is so prevalent.
What exactly is it about office jobs that are making workers around the world so sick? Well, it has to be said, there are plenty of culprits- everything from the lights above us to the chairs beneath us. The good news is once you are aware of the dangers, there is plenty you can do to protect against them.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at four ways your office could be harming the health of your workforce- and what you can do about it.
The problem: We’ll start with where the majority of employees spend the bulk of their day- sitting at their desk. And already we’re onto one of the most potentially damaging aspects of office work: sitting. Being seated for long periods of time has long been proven to be incredibly bad for our health. In fact, it is so bad for us that many experts compare the effects of excessive sitting to those of smoking. While there is undoubtedly some hyperbole in this statement, it is not difficult to see how the comparison has been made.
For one, according to a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, sitting for long periods can increase the risk for colon, endometrial and lung cancer. There are also studies that point to a possible link with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
And all this is before we have even touched upon work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) -a range of injuries typified by recurrent pain, stiffness, swelling, cramping or aches occurring anywhere in the musculoskeletal system- including the neck, shoulders, wrists, back, hips, legs, knees and feet. Generally caused by poor posture or repetitive tasks (including typing) MSDs are responsible for around 40% of all days lost to work-related illnesses in the UK, according to the Labour Force Survey of Great Britain.
The solution: Work with staff to create comfortable workstations- this could mean repositioning screens, mice and keyboards to ensure they are at the correct height and distance. Also, make readily available equipment such as ergonomically shaped keyboards and mice, wrist and footrests and standing desks.
2. Indoor air
The problem: Though it may sound alarmist, the truth is there’s a good chance that the very air you’re breathing right now could be harming your health. In a study published in the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, it was found that indoor air pollutant levels can reach up to five times the levels found outside- and there are cases where it could be as much as 100 times. This is not exactly great news for a country like the UAE where residents spend as much as 90% of their time indoors.
Unfortunately, it is not only cool air that is pumped through your office building via the air conditioning unit. When air conditioners are not regularly cleaned, they become breeding grounds for all kinds of nasty airborne irritants such as mould, bacteria, fungi and other microbes. These are then pumped throughout the office and into the lungs of your workforce- potentially leading to a whole host of respiratory problems.
And breathing difficulties are just one part of the problem– air conditioning has also been shown to induce headaches, fatigue and general sickliness. In fact, several studies including one published in the International Journal of Epidemiology have found that those who work in office buildings with central air conditioning show more symptoms of illness and have more days off sick than those who do not.
The solution: The easiest solution is to shut off the air conditioning and get some fresh air. But let’s be realistic, that’s not particularly practical out here in the UAE. So, failing that, it’s important to encourage your employees to go outside while on breaks, even if it’s just walking around in the shade outdoors for a few minutes. Meanwhile, it’s a must to ensure the filters in your air conditioning units are regularly cleaned to cut down on airborne microbes.
The problem: Have you ever walked into the office in the morning and squinted at the bright fluorescent lights that line the ceiling? If the answer is yes, then there’s a good chance your working area is over-illuminated. This occurs when artificial light is brighter than it needs to be for the task at hand– which is the case in most offices. While we all need a well-lit workspace, over-exposure to bright, artificial light can lead to a number of serious health conditions.
In a paper published by the Harvard Health Letter, researchers showed that excessively bright light affects melatonin production- the hormone that promotes sleep. Essentially, it starts to play havoc with the body’s circadian rhythm- our natural 24-hour cycle of wakefulness. This is more and more of an issue today since we have so many devices with blue light as well as long hours in the office. Over exposure can lead to a restless night and as anyone who has ever suffered from insomnia knows, poor sleep has a tremendous impact on quality of life. Beyond this, there is tentative evidence that suggests this may in turn be linked to an increased risk of certain diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.
Finally, the fluorescent lights commonly found in offices are constantly flickering- even if imperceptible to the naked eye. Over the course of an eight-hour day, five days a week, this puts tremendous strain on the eyes leading to headaches and migraines.
The solution: The ideal solution here is to allow for as much natural light as possible throughout your workspace. If that’s not possible then choosing softer bulbs or dimming lights can also have the desired effect. And once again, regular breaks from the confines of the office are the order of the day.
4. Working long hours
The problem: While not a specific aspect of the office environment per se, there is yet another way the office could be harming your employees’ health- and that’s how long they spend there. Aside from the obvious risk of fatigue and burnout that comes from such a grueling work schedule, long working hours have also been linked with increased risk of several medical conditions. A recent review of multiple studies published in the Lancet showed that employees who work long hours have an increased risk of stroke when compared to those working standard hours.
Of course, the primary reason behind this increased risk is something we know all about here in the UAE- stress. It is something that affects an alarmingly large percentage of the population. Coupled with the inactivity of being at a desk all day, it all mounts up to take its toll on our overall health.
And if we think working longer hours means higher productivity then we’re really barking up the wrong tree. It’s becoming clearer that “working long” doesn’t equate to “working smart.” Working long hours can lead to mistakes being made and poor decisions being taken.
The solution: The first step is to create a culture where employees do not feel chained to their desks. Encourage staff to take regular breaks and set clear rules on cut-off times for sending work requests. Increasingly, managers are finding that flexible working is an effective way of reducing hours while increasing productivity and lowering cases of absenteeism.
Counting the cost of work-related illness
This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s clear you don’t have to be working above a safety net to be at risk of work-related injuries and illness. The humble office contains within it many hazards that if not managed correctly can have dire consequences for employee health. In addition, there is another huge incentive for employers to get it right when it comes to the office environment: the financial one.
It is easy to feel like little can be done to keep such costs under control. In actual fact, the solution is relatively simple- and it starts with education. If your staff don’t know the potential consequences of certain working conditions then they are unlikely to avoid them. That’s why the first step is always to make employees aware of how they can protect themselves against work-related injuries- by providing advice on good posture and adequate screen breaks.
Next up, strive to create a culture in which employees feel comfortable addressing any issues that they feel may be affecting their health- be it an uncomfortable working environment or simply overwork. Addressing and overcoming these issues early will reduce the risk of any costly medical conditions further down the line as well as resulting in a healthy, happy and productive workforce.