Workplace hazards: 5 ways your office set-up could be harming your employees

From eating lunch at your desk to dirty air conditioning (AC) systems, most offices are rife with threats to health. Often it’s the very aspects of office life that are designed to increase convenience and productivity, such as open-plan layouts and vending machines, that end up damaging employee health and well-being.

Ultimately, this reduces productivity levels.

If your office features any of the common workplace health hazards listed in this article, just follow the simple steps outlined below and turn things around today.

1. AC systems can worsen allergies and harbour bacteria

Get the AC cleaned to protect employees from airborne allergies and avoid productivity loss.

The belief that AC itself can make you ill carries no legitimate scientific backing, but research has shown that AC units that are not regularly cleaned can accumulate dust mites, mould and pollen – all of which can worsen allergy and asthma symptoms in susceptible workers. In rare cases, stagnated water in AC systems can contain legionella (and other bacteria) which can lead to serious respiratory infections.

Headaches and blocked or runny noses are just some of the symptoms of sick building syndrome – the name for the health problems that workers can get in specific buildings.

It’s true that regular AC unit cleaning is an added expense, but the long-term losses associated with sick days or poor productivity far outweigh the costs of having the units professionally cleaned.

2. Open-plan offices allow common illnesses to quickly spread

Consider different office layouts and working areas to minimise distractions and airborne infections.

Open-plan offices have long been favoured by employers who are keen to foster a sense of collaboration between staff members. Many believe that this makes them feel happy and included, which in turn boosts productivity.

However, studies, such as one published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health, have shown that contrary to popular belief, open-plan offices worsen, rather than improve, employee well-being and productivity.

So if an open-plan design is not the answer, what is? Speak to your employees to find out. Options include offering private offices or spaces where people can work alone, such as a reading area. Or more flexible work schedules or changing your office layout. Working from home can also improve staff mental health, reducing the tiredness caused by commuting.

3. Lack of activity from sitting down all day raises disease risk

Encourage regular movement to lessen employee risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancers.

A review of 47 studies published in the Annals of Internal Medicine by the American College of Physicians suggests that prolonged sitting raises a person’s risk of CVD, cancer, diabetes and early death – even if they also exercise regularly.

So it’s important to maximise your workforce’s health and lower their disease risk by encouraging them to move more often. Small tactics such as placing toilets on a different floor, or putting tools (like photocopiers) far away from where your staff sit, will force them to get up. So lay out your office in a way that requires regular movement. And encourage staff to take regular breaks.

It’s important to maximise your workforce’s health and lower their disease risk by encouraging them to move more often.

Openly praising those who take regular breaks and eat lunch away from their desks will help to show staff that moving away from the office is a good thing and not a sign of slacking.

4. Office chairs and desks can cause chronic back and neck pain

Invest in ergonomic chairs and desks to encourage good posture and reduce absenteeism.

Chronic back and neck pain is one of the most common causes of prolonged time off work. It is often brought on by sitting on a chair that does not encourage good posture. So you can minimise the risk of future back problems in your workforce by investing in ergonomic furniture.

Ideally, opt for chairs that specifically support the lower (lumbar) region, have adjustable seat and armrest heights (so they can be customised for each employee) and include a footstool and free-floating tilt mechanism that allows the seat base to tilt when the backrest does – mimicking natural movement. This should help reduce employee time off due to repetitive strain injury or musculoskeletal pain.

5. Unhealthy eating habits can increase obesity and ill health among staff

Stock your office with healthy treats to help keep employees fighting fit.

The occasional team pizza or after-work drink can be invaluable for building morale and showing staff that their hard work is appreciated. But avoid making food-related treats the norm in your office.

As the majority of waking hours are spent at work, a person’s dietary habits will be significantly influenced by the food that’s available in the office or company canteen. You don’t have to go as far as implementing outright bans on less healthy foods. However, making small changes like replacing a junk-filled vending machine with fruit bars and providing healthy, but affordable, on-site food options can make a big difference.

Also reflect on office cultures, such as bringing in cakes on every staff member’s birthday. Suggest a healthier option, like an early finish for the birthday celebrant. Creating a culture that’s centred on healthy habits will go a long way to reducing disease associated with poor dietary choices, and will ultimately reduce a loss of productivity due to time off for doctor’s appointments, tests and ill health.

Healthy office, healthy workforce

With workplaces focused on business outcomes and turnover, there is no time to reflect on the actual environment staff members work in every day. However, as this article demonstrates, failure to look closely at everything within an office – from the food your staff members can access, to the chairs they sit on and the air they breathe – could cost you severely in the long-term.

The research shows that poorly-designed workplaces harm employee health and decrease productivity. If any of the health hazards outlined in this article are a common sight in your office, it’s time to make a change.