Earlier this year CoreNet Global released its projections that by 2017, the average U.S. worker will be allocated less than 100 square feet at work. This compares to an average of 225 square feet in 2010. This sounds like a whopping drop, and is perhaps precipitated by our recent economic woes. Regardless, will cramming more people into the same space make people even more stressed and less healthy? Less space is just one aspect of our offices that might affect our health, but there are many more. Perhaps it is time to rethink how we create healthy workplaces.

Because of a phenomenon called situational blindness, we tend to become so familiar with the usual places that we inhabit that we stop noticing things about them. Think of a messy kid who seems not to notice the pile of clothes and other garbage on the floor of his room. A similar effect makes us oblivious to the layout of our office space and its effect on our health. Two recent articles from the New York Times suggest that long periods of sitting each day can lead to a reduction of a few years or more in expected length of life, even if you exercise each day.

Work, and the lack of personal time and fatigue that results from work, are the most common reasons cited by most employees for their stress levels, lack of exercise, poor sleep and poor diets.

The obvious examples of workspaces that make us sick are the toxic spaces that lead directly to disease. Sick buildings - offices with too little light or worksites that expose employees to safety hazards - are pretty easy to imagine. What is less obvious is how very clean, safe, modern offices can affect our health. If you consider who designs office spaces today, and what they're thinking about when they do that, you start to understand why we have unhealthy offices. Workplaces are designed for work, not for being healthy. The underlying assumption is that people arrive at work healthy, and that the only consideration therefore needs to be designing a workplace that makes work easy, efficient and comfortable.


Effect on productivity

The good news is that an increasing body of research is showing that office spaces designed with employee health in mind can also enhance employee productivity. One trend is toward standing desks (or their more active cousins, the walking treadmill desk), both of which can take up less space than a traditional chair and desk. Standing and walking while we work are good for our health, since exercise, even in five-minute bursts throughout the day, has been shown to increase overall health, self-control, patience, cognitive skills and decision-making ability.

Onsite health clubs, on the other hand, are usually not well-attended, since they don't allow employees to work out and work at the same time. So in many companies, being seen taking an hour to go to the onsite gym is like being seen sneaking off to play hooky for an hour. When exercise equipment is incorporated into the workspace, however, the implied message is clear: "We want you to exercise while you work."

Research shows that certain environments nudge people to do certain tasks better than others. If you need to proofread a document and catch every last mistake, do it in a room painted red, which will signal your brain to be on high alert, and expect to catch about 20% more mistakes than in other environments. If you need to brainstorm for a new product, do it in a room painted sky blue, especially on the ceiling. This literal interpretation of "blue-skying" has been shown to lead people to more creative, more imaginative solutions. If you need to check your email and remain focused, but have a backache, sit on the office massage chair with your laptop for half an hour in a slightly darkened room.

At our office, we hold balance ball meetings. Everyone sits on a balance ball (at $20 a ball, it's much cheaper than the usual $300 leather boardroom chairs), and meetings are very focused. People bounce around a little sometimes, but not so that it's distracting to others.

As office space continues to shrink, perhaps it's time to forget the idea of one cubicle per person and instead start to design office spaces with health and tasks in mind. People could move from one space to the next (getting that much-needed exercise boost as they do), as their needs change. They'd be more efficient, since the spaces could be psychologically and ergonomically designed to optimize certain types of tasks. Smart employers would place healthy snacks (perhaps also tailored to the tasks at hand) in each area, and banish vending machines once and for all. Water cooler: Come back, all is forgiven. Add a little Foursquare to allow check-ins, and work almost starts to sound like it could be fun.

Contributing Editor Andrew Sykes is chairman of Health at Work. He is a qualified actuary, a licensed health insurance broker, an HIAA managed health professional and an accomplished speaker on the topic of consumer-directed health care and wellness. He can be reached at andrew@healthatwork.com.

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