Are you sitting comfortably? Office design and worker wellbeing

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Paying close attention to factors such as acoustics and the ergonomic design of workstations and offices can reap benefits for office workers’ general health and wellbeing.

The layout is the most dominant architectural feature that defines the office type, together with functional features. Among office employees, personal control over the environment is strongly related to satisfaction with the office while the perception of control over factors such as acoustic and visual privacy – that subsequently can be related to stress and disturbance – are also essential.

Acoustic issues are of special interest since noise – defined as unwanted sound – is a major stressor in office environments, with negative effects on health and cognitive performance. In  open-plan layouts, which are increasingly widespread, these environmental factors are difficult to control and they can have an impact on employee health and levels of sickness absence.

Health and wellbeing in relation to the physical office environment
Various recent research has demonstrated the relationship between office layouts and the health and wellbeing of employees.

In a Dutch study published in 2009 researchers studied 138 employees who moved from cell-offices (individual rooms) to flex-offices (called ‘innovative office’) over a period of 15 months, aiming to see if any shift in health status occurred after the move. In flex-office employees do not have permanent, fixed personal workstations but instead are offered a variety of work environments and choose their workstation based on their needs. The results showed that after the move employees reported better general health. The researchers concluded that the higher levels of wellbeing reported were due to the effort put into designing ergonomic workstations in the new flex-offices.

A large Danish study published in 2011, based on a national survey of about 2,200 employees representing more than 2,000 different offices, investigated the impact of various numbers of people sharing a workspace on an organisation’s sickness absence levels. Four different categories of offices were compared to each other – cell-offices, offices with two occupants, offices with three to six occupants, and open-plan offices with more than six occupants. The study found significant differences in the sickness absence rates among the groups, with the lowest sick rates in cell-office and the highest in open-plan offices with six occupants or more. The researchers suggested that a greater number of individuals sharing a workplace increases the risks of infections and therefore impacts on sickness absence.

Both studies indicate that the physical design does have an impact on different aspects of employee health and wellbeing. They do not however give any detailed information about what role the different features of the existing office types play in this.

In 2008 the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden carried out research relating general and emotional health to office type and in 2010 conducted another study on the impact of office layouts on stress. At the begining of this year, the Stress Research Institute investigated the relationship between office layout and sickness absence. Our research tried to get a more detailed picture of the office design’s importance for employee health by investigating different outcomes such as general health and emotional health, stress and sickness absence.

General and emotional health
Traditionally, there have been two main methods of defining office environments, either by spatial organisation or by work organisation. The architectural features are the physical characteristics of the office of which the most dominant is the spatial organisation, i.e. the layout. The functional feature is the organisation of the work in the office, including technology, leadership and decision authority, for example. Since both can influence employee wellbeing in various ways it is better to list the seven office types identified in contemporary office design (see panel).

The study looked at 500 employees from 19 different organisations, working in different office types. It measured four dimensions of general health:

any sick leave (from one to seven days a year); longer sick leave (from eight days); general health; and physical and psychological health. The results showed significant differences between employees working in different type of office in terms of general health. The employees in cell-office and flex-office showed the best general health, while the lowest general health was found in medium-sized and small open-plan offices.

The six dimensions of emotional health analysed were: emotional health’s effect on workers’ efficiency; emotional health’s effect on accuracy of work; feeling calm and in harmony during the previous four weeks; feeling full of energy the previous four weeks; feeling sad and depressed the previous four weeks, and general quality of sleep.

In terms of emotional health, the best results were among employees in flex-offices, followed by those in cell-offices, while the poorest levels of emotional health was reported in medium-sized open-plan offices followed by small open-plan offices.

The study found that good overall health in flex-offices and cell-offices depends on their architectural and functional features, and was also related to employees’ ability to control their workspace. The poorer overall health associated with small and medium-sized-open plan offices could possibly be ascribed to their defining features, resulting in more environmental stress.

A weakness of traditional small and medium size open-plan offices is that the work is expected to almost always take place at a personal workstation that is placed in an open workspace. In these environments, employees often do not have the option of withdrawing into back-up rooms for meetings, private conversations or concentrated work when needed.

The reason that medium-sized open-plan design is less favourable to employee wellbeing could be because a group of 10-24 people sharing the same workspace neither gives the anonymity and ability for subgroups to develop that larger workspaces allow, nor the social coherence that a small size office enables. On the other hand, the reason why employees in large open-plan offices of more than 24 poeple report better health may be because the noise disturbance in a larger workspace eventually becomes an anonymous buzz.

We found significant differences in stress levels among employees in the seven office-types. The results showed that 21% of the 500 employees had stress problems, with the lowest stress reported in small open-plan offices, at just 12%. The highest stress was found in combi-offices, with 35% of employees reporting stress.

It is not possible to tell which exact feature of a specific office type explains the outcome, but we saw more stress in combi-offices, where the major defining feature is team-based work, and lower stress in small open-plan offices. Other studies that we have conducted in the past have shown less conflicts in open- plan offices; this possibly suggests there are some positive effects of sharing workspace due to the social coherence with colleagues, as long as you don’t have to work too closely with people and depend on them for optimising your own work performance.

Most interesting, however, was  the great gender difference – with women reporting almost twice as high prevalence of stress symptoms compared to men. Women had highest stress levels in combi-offices followed by cell-offices, and reported the lowest stress levels in small and large open plan offices. We also found that men and women had different preferences regarding office-types from a stress perspective.

For men, a cell-office is the most favourable office-type, while combi-office followed by large and medium-sized open plan are the worst. These results could be explained by the influence of both architectural and organisational features of the office types, whereas the high stress levels reported in combi-offices could be due to the high degree of team work associated with these environments, as collaboration can easily cause conflicts.

The low stress reported in small open plan offices, especially among women, may be a result of the social support employees find in sharing their workspace with a smaller group. From a stress perspective it appears to be better for men to have a private room (i.e. a cell-office), while the social support found in sharing the workspace with a smaller group of colleagues is better for women.

Sickness absence
In yet another study we investigated the office type’s influence on employees’ short-term and long-term sick leave by studying the absence patterns of 1,852 Swedish employees over two years. The results showed a significant risk of spells of short-term sick leave in the three open-plan office types. The gender analysis showed that women working mainly in the three open-plan offices had a high risk of spells of short-term sick leave, while men only had a high risk of short term sick leave spells in flex-offices.

For long spells of sick leave the office-type had no impact on men, while women in large open-plan offices showed higher levels of long- term absence. The lowest reported numbers of spells of long sick leave was found among women in small and medium-sized open plan offices, while a significantly higher risk of long spells of sick leave was found among women in large open-plan offices.

This can be interpreted as women being more sensitive to the stimuli from the office type, but also because shared workspace leads to a high risk of short sick leave spells (in some cases for the spread of infections).  This explanation for the high levels of long spells of sick leave among women is supported by other research that has found social support from colleagues to be more important for women than men, which is difficult to find in large open plans. For example, research by Anderson and Martin in 1995 found that women communicate with co-workers for different reasons than men at work, and their communication is more affection oriented than men’s.

According to our studies the office type, defined not only by its architectural features but also its functional features, including the organisation of work, has an influence on employees’ health and wellbeing. This means that organisations should view office design as a strategic tool to be used not only to improve employee performance, but also to attract and retain employees.

Christina Bodin Danielsson is a researcher at the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, Sweden, and the School of Architecture and Built Environment, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden



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