10 Things Your Office Won't Say

MarketWatch.com
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to repurpose historic buildings like fire stations or grist mills into office space, it may make matters worse, as outdated HVAC systems can cause problems if not retrofitted properly, says Everett Mount, president of Safety Synergy, a New Jersey-based occupational health consulting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 CRITTERS LURKING."
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 issues.

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 workers' desks.

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.