10 Things Your Office Won't Say
Friday, January 11, 2013
1. "YOU'RE NOT AS SAFE HERE AS YOU MIGHT THINK."
Cubicle dwellers might think that their desk jobs, if boring, are
at least danger-free, but there are real occupational hazards at
the office: There were 286 fatalities in administrative and support
jobs in 2011, for instance, according to the Bureau of Labor
Statistics (versus 721among people working construction).
Surprisingly, though - despite the lurking danger that increases in
office security over the years might imply - the most common cause
of death had nothing to do with office-security threats. Rather,
they involved slipping, tripping or falling, which often happens
when employees climb furniture or bookshelves attempting to reach
files or other objects, says Dwayne Towles, an occupational safety
and health consultant. On rare occasions, of course, Americans go
to the office to never return home for more dramatic reasons,
succumbing to tragedies ranging from violent homicides to freak
accidents. Still, most offices witness less excitement: Real estate
and law offices had only 10 deaths each in 2011. "The incident
rates are low in an office environment, but that doesn't mean
people don't get hurt," Towles says.
2. "FEELING RUN DOWN? BLAME THE BUILDING."
Desk jockeys commonly joke that work makes them sick. But
sometimes, they're correct. An indefinite feeling of illness might
actually be caused by the office itself. Occupational health
consultants term the phenomenon "sick building syndrome" - though
experts say they have learned to take the phrase with a grain of
salt. Mold, odors, inadequate ventilation, chemicals and other
pollutants can cause real symptoms such as headaches, coughs and
fatigue while employees are at the office, usually going away when
they return home. Such problems often stem from moisture trapped in
walls during construction, which can plague newly constructed
buildings as well as old. (Staring at screens can also cause
something called computer vision syndrome, a condition where
employees' eyes become dry and tired, and that may be linked to
glaucoma.) And while it's currently trendy for companies to
repurpose historic buildings like fire stations or grist mills into
office space, it may make matters worse, as outdated HVAC systems
can cause problems if not retrofitted properly, says Everett Mount,
president of Safety Synergy, a New Jersey-based occupational health
consulting company. "Sick building doesn't really mean old
building," says Towles.
But some experts say employee sickness may often be psychological,
with workers' stress and frustration (say, fear of layoffs)
manifesting as physical symptoms - and paranoia can quickly spread
across the office. "I've seen people using indoor air quality to
get out of a place where they don't want to be," says Mount, who
has investigated a few buildings top-to-bottom following worker
complaints and found no problem whatsoever. "'Sick building
syndrome,'" he says,"is grossly overused."
3. "YOU'RE SITTING ON YOUR WORST ENEMY."
Before you blame your health problems on your boss or back-stabbing
co-worker, consider that the culprit might be right beneath you.
Experts say the most dangerous aspect of an office job might be the
simple fact that most people sit while doing it: "There's nothing
else I can think of that is impacting more people than sitting,"
says Marc Hamilton, who studies the physiology of inactivity at the
Pennington Biomedical Research Center. Studies suggest that the
body loses 20% to 25% of its good cholesterol and becomes
insulin-resistant in a full day of sitting, increasing the risk of
diabetes, heart disease, obesity - and death. Thanks to computers'
conquest of the American workplace, people now sit 1,000 minutes a
week - sitting even more than they sleep.
The bad news: Recent research has shown that no amount of exercise
can counteract the health damage caused by sitting, and people who
exercise spend just as much time sitting as those who don't. Plus,
despite a booming ergonomics industry, which makes equipment
specially designed to make people more comfortable at their desks
(chairs that reduce lower-back pain and keyboards that ease carpal
tunnel symptoms, for example), experts say the high-tech - and
often expensive - gadgets can't solve the problem that workers are
chained to their chairs. Even desks allowing people to stand while
they work aren't a sustainable alternative to sitting: "After a
while, they don't use it; they just sit," says Jos Verbeek of the
Finnish Institute for Occupational Health and Safety.
4. "THE DARK SIDE OF 'GREEN' BUILDINGS: NOISE AND BUGS."
Regardless of your co-workers' recycling practices, the American
workforce has gone green: Any office building constructed in recent
years is likely to meet a number of eco-friendly criteria, and may
even boast a level of LEED certification (from the U.S. Green
Building Council's program for certifying "green" buildings).
But some critics say companies trying to do their part to save the
earth may inadvertently be hurting their employees. Modern HVAC
systems also have less white noise than old-fashioned radiators and
air-conditioners, making workplaces quieter than employees would
like. (A top complaint among cubicle dwellers is that they can hear
their colleague fight with their spouse, credit card company and
anyone else - from all the way across the office.) Meanwhile, large
windows let in sunshine and warmth to reduce heating bills, but the
extra light creates glare on computer screens, which strains
employees' eyes. And high-tech humidification systems often welcome
unwanted guests. "Most insects, including bedbugs and roaches, like
humid air, so you're actually helping them along," says Greg
Baumann, vice president at pest-management firm Orkin.
5. "YOUR CO-WORKERS ARE GROSS."
If you're worried your co-worker isn't pulling his weight, just
remember that he may be contributing in other, less obvious ways.
Humans contribute three-quarters of the bacteria at work - and
men's offices have roughly 50% more bacteria than women's,
according to a recent study from the University of Arizona and San
Diego State University. But women can be guilty too: While this
study looked at surfaces like desktops and keyboards, researchers
previously swabbed common office items and found that women carried
in more bacteria on their makeup cases, phones and purses (men's
most bacteria-ridden possession was their wallet).
While most of the germs are harmless, "if someone were sick who
came into the office, they're probably going to spread it around
pretty quick," says Scott Kelley, a biology professor at San Diego
State University. To stay healthy, Kelley recommends that office
workers avoid touching common surfaces or wipe down surfaces that
co-workers also touch, such as bathroom door handles, conference
tables and lunch areas. (The study found a surprising amount of
bacteria resulting from employees not washing their hands after
using the restroom.) But don't go overboard, he says: "You
shouldn't be paranoid about your own space or your own desk - that
would just be silly."
6. "YOUR SOFTWARE'S BUGS ARE NOTHING COMPARED WITH THE REAL-LIFE
Modern office workers have much bigger problems than a bad boss -
or should we say smaller? From Google's corporate offices to the
bureaus of the Internal Revenue Service, even the most secure
workplaces have fallen prey to increasingly brazen trespassers:
bedbugs. A survey by the National Pest Management Association and
the University of Kentucky found that 38% of extermination
companies treated bedbugs in office buildings in 2011, compared
with only 18% in 2010. The office environment is the ideal habitat
for not only bedbugs but also roaches and other insects who thrive
in the climate-controlled digs, feed on workers' crumbs (or their
flesh) and stretch their legs at night when all the humans go home
(allowing them to survive longer undetected), says Orkin's Baumann.
Even bedbugs, which need human blood to survive and normally come
out at night while their targets are sleeping, will alter their
habits in offices and bite people during the daytime. The office
safari doesn't end there: Occupational safety consultants like
Towles have seen a range of wildlife invade the workplace,
including birds, rodents, small snakes and even venomous brown
recluse spiders, lurking in office drawers and file storage areas.
"That's called a bad day," Baumann says.
And employees have more than bug bites and diseases spread by pests
to worry about - experts report seeing workers shunned by their
colleagues after an infestation is found in their desk.
To prevent pests from infesting a cubicle, exterminators recommend
ridding the desk of any unsealed food, washing dishes in the office
and checking clothing and handbags for ride-along critters on the
way to and from the office. Employees may inadvertently bring bugs
from home into the office and vice versa, or pick them up while
commuting on the subway, as crowded cities tend to be hotbeds for
some pests. And if workers spot something sinister crawling in
their cubicle, they should alert management right away - experts
say most companies have now established protocols for handling such
7. "SAY GOODBYE TO WALLS."
Never thought you'd miss your cubicle? While experts say office
walls have gradually been coming down, not everyone is cheering.
Modern companies have moved away from the cube, and open office
setups - with continuous desks and few private offices, if any -
are becoming the norm, says James Mallon, executive VP of
ergonomics consulting firm Humantech. Indeed, individual office
space has shrunk 15% for executives and more than 20% for middle
management since 1994, according to the International Facility
Management Association. Managers believe the free-flowing format
fosters collaboration, and as smartphones and laptops increasingly
encourage staff to telecommute or work remotely, it has become less
important for employees to have a desk of their own at the office.
"People are tending to not be tied to that cubicle anymore," Mallon
says. But employees working from home on laptops and tablets are
griping about more neck and shoulder pain, say experts, and
supporting devices like iPads could contribute to musculoskeletal
disorders in the wrist. (Bringing laptops in the office also means
snares of power cords to trip over.) "More people are taking work
home with them and working in a not-very-ideal position at home, so
that's compounding the problem," says Towles.
8. "AN OPEN-PLAN OFFICE WON'T CURE YOUR ILLS."
Breaking down barriers at the office may actually create more
problems than it solves, say experts. The biggest problem after the
cubicle walls crumbled? Noise and lack of speech privacy, since
there is little shielding workers' from their colleagues' phone
conversations. (Cubicles weren't a perfect solution, either; in
fact, research has shown that the walls may have created an
artificial feeling of privacy, causing employees to talk louder and
thus annoying their co-workers even more.) The result can be
detrimental to productivity: Without walls, co-workers freely drop
in on each other, and each distraction costs additional minutes in
recovery time, says research firm Basex. To cope, office workers
are wearing headphones but turning up the volume loud enough to
drown out distracting voices, "subjecting their hearing to levels
that would be illegal in an industrial setting," and potentially
causing hearing loss over time, says Towles.
To restore the peace safely, experts recommend reinventing the
office "door" in lieu of being able to shut an actual door - AECOM,
an organizational strategy firm, advises setting up a hushed office
zone that functions like the quiet car on a train, or using a
version of a do-not-disturb sign to signal to co-workers whether or
not an interruption is welcome.
9. "IT'S NOT JUST YOUR COMPUTER THAT'S FREEZING."
Workplace consultants say there's one point of business where it is
virtually impossible to get employees to reach a consensus: the
office temperature. Too hot or too cold is one of office workers'
most frequent gripes, say experts, and the complaints aren't always
a simple Goldilocks problem. While building engineers usually
assume a full house, the amount of people in an office peaks at 30%
capacity around 10:30 a.m., according to Mallon at Humantech. That
means the body heat that building designers accounted for in their
calculations usually isn't there. "One of the biggest problems is
that office buildings in North America are typical overcooled in
the summertime and overheated in the winter," says David Lehrer, a
researcher at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for
the Built Environment. "It doesn't make any sense."
Indeed, a study of 100 office buildings by the Lawrence Berkeley
National Laboratory, which studies indoor environments, found that
more than half were colder in the summertime than the recommended
comfort zone, which starts at about 73 degrees Fahrenheit.
Buildings were cooler on average in the summertime than the winter.
The overcooling doesn't just waste energy and make employees
uncomfortable - it also decreases worker performance: The lab found
that tasks like proofreading, text typing and simple arithmetic
deteriorated when the temperature moved outside the comfort zone.
Simply increasing temperature one degree from 67 to 68 degrees
would increase work performance .43%, or add $430 worth of
productivity for a $100,000 salary employee, the researchers
calculated. Too warm isn't good either: One study linked overheated
indoor spaces to weight gain and obesity. Some companies are
currently experimenting with giving employees more control over
their own temperature, such as putting fans or feet warmers at
10. "BEWARE OF YOUR CO-WORKER THE CRIMINAL."
As employees come to work with more and more pricey pocket
electronics like smartphones and iPads, those devices are also
increasingly disappearing while workers are on the clock, say
experts. Theft is the most common office crime, with wallets and
phones often stolen simply because they are left out in the open,
says Ray O'Hara, chairman of security organization ASIS
International. And just making the robbery that easy may be enough
to turn your co-worker into a criminal: "Janitors and guards get
blamed for everything, but often it's employees and contractors
taking from others," O'Hara says.
Office theft can range from stealing lunches (a small but
incredibly aggravating crime, O'Hara says) to identity theft and
intellectual property theft, which can be "much more damaging to a
company than a missing credit card." And with companies hiring more
freelancers and part-time contractors instead of full-time staff,
the transient nature of the current workplace may make it harder to
spot the interlopers. While some employers use GPS tracking devices
to recover company-licensed products that are stolen, employees can
protect themselves by storing valuables inside a locked desk or
cabinet - and remembering to take them home at night: "If you walk
away and leave an iPad sitting on your desk, it may not be there
when you get back," O'Hara says.