Kick that junk: Cognisant of physical challenges office workers face in sedentary behaviour, this insurance company is boldly invested in making sure staff and visitors get the message. (Photos: Fredrik Lerneryd)

Office space – the primary health frontier of any enterprise

Amy Green
Without good lighting, plants and privacy, the open-plan office can become a threat to the wellbeing of the people working there.

Forget office politics: research shows that companies should focus on improving office design to support the health of their employees and make them more productive.

There is "overwhelming evidence" that office design has a significant effect on the health and productivity of employees, according to a report released in September last year by the World Green Building Council (World GBC) that advocates safer building practices.

Research conducted by consultancy firm Occupational Health South Africa and Statistics South Africa found that on average 15% of employees are absent on any given day, costing the economy between R12-billion and R16-billion annually.

World GBC identified interior layout, lighting and air quality as significant factors needed for a healthy office environment but location, a view of nature and exercise-oriented design were also important for employee wellbeing.

A blueprint for bliss

A strong predictor of workplace health, according to the World GBC report, is an office's interior layout. Factors such as having designated social spaces apart from working spaces had a positive effect on "concentration, collaboration, confidentiality and creativity.

Employees who had a space to go to when they needed a break felt happier and more able to complete tasks.

Another aspect integral to office-worker behaviour is its sedentary nature. Recent research has shown that this can lead to serious health complications in the long run such as heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

Rebecca Meiring, of the University of the Witwatersrand's physiology department, said that "very few muscles are working" while a person is sitting or lying down, which is "the proposed reason as to how it can be so detrimental to cardiovascular and metabolic health".

Bill Helyar, from the local interior design firm Paragon Interiors, said his company often advises clients to create "stand-up" spaces for meetings, with high tables and no chairs, to reduce sitting time.

According to Helyar, open-plan offices are popular in South Africa because they are cheaper to build and maintain. But a 2013 study of 42 000 office workers across the globe, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that employees in open-plan offices are regularly exposed to "uncontrollable noise", which disrupts their work. The research highlighted that prolonged noise can increase stress and negatively affect mental performance and concentration.

"There is a conflict between providing the need for privacy and the desire for openness and communication. There are several design options that can help negotiate this trade-off including personal measures, such as the use of headphones, and organisational approaches, such as providing a range of different workspaces, and allowing staff flexibility in their use," according to the World GBC report's authors.

Paragon Interiors' Lucy le Roux said "the overseas [developed countries] workplace is more trusting of staff and permissive of alternative ways of working", such as working from home on certain days or when performing certain jobs – a strategy that could help employees complete stressful tasks in a quiet environment. "One positive is that local workplaces are starting to include alternative work settings in open plan [offices] such as phone booths, quiet rooms and library areas to make these environments more enjoyable."

Gina Görgens-Ekermans, an industrial psychologist at Stellenbosch University, said open-plan offices were lauded as efficient and cost-effective, but new research suggests they may be hazardous to health.

A recent study published in the international journal Ergonomics showed that short-term sick leave rates in open-plan officers were significantly higher than those in closed offices. The authors said this is the result of a higher "risk of infection" among people sharing a workspace and other stressors such as "noise and less ability for personal control".

Görgens-Ekermans said that people who feel anxious in social situations may "find it very difficult" working in an open-plan office. "People experience different levels of anxiety so the effect on their psychological state or productivity would be individualised," she said.

"Space can have quite a big impact on a person's psychological state and not having enough of it could be difficult for a person to handle."

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, each employee should have at least 2.25m² space. An open office space of 2 000m² could fit 888 employees, said Görgens-Ekermans.

Ignite the light

Lighting can also have an effect on "comfort, social communication, mood, health, safety and aesthetic judgement", according to the report.

Numerous studies have linked access to a view from a window with increased wellbeing. Yet the quality of indoor lighting has been found to have more of an effect. Companies using older high-intensity discharge fluorescent lighting often experience "flicker", which has been associated with eye strain and headaches, noted the authors of the World GBC report. They suggest using "high-frequency fluorescent electronic ballast" lighting instead.

Paragon Interior design director Jenny Seddon said it was important for workers to experience the natural changes in light during the day; in the mornings office lighting should be "cooler", and retain a bluish tint, whereas afternoon light should "change to a warmer, more yellowish tint. With glass walls everyone is able to benefit from the changing light colours," she said. "It becomes very disengaging when there are high panels on the work stations where workers don't have visual access to changes in light."

Seddon said that the idea of "separation and isolation" doesn't work in an office environment "even if the nature of your work is independent".

Fever of inefficiency

Office temperature is often a source of tension as occupants tend to differ in their preferences.

According to the United Kingdom's Health and Safety Executive, the optimum for "thermal comfort" is when 80% of workers are happy with the temperature. They said that, realistically, at least one in five workers in any office will be unhappy with the temperature.

A 2006 survey conducted by the UK's Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers found 62% of workers noted that when the office is too hot they take up to 25% longer to complete a task. A 2004 study found that when temperatures reach 27°C it results in a 15% reduction in productivity.

Managing thermal comfort is difficult because it is so subjective and reliant on many factors. "The sensation of feeling hot or cold is not only dependent on air temperature, but relies on a complex relationship with environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, air movement and radiant heat, as well as personal factors such as the level of activity and insulation afforded by clothing," Occupational Health South Africa notes on its website.

Take a deep breath

Air quality – the factor most closely associated with ill health in an office – is also the more complex problem to mitigate with design, said the authors of the World GBC report. "Office occupants may be exposed to a cocktail of airborne pollutants that typically include chemicals and micro-organisms originating from sources both within and outside the building."

They note that these can affect the eyes, throat and, in some cases, skin of office workers. "Reactions vary but can typically include inflammation [and] watering of eyes," the report's authors said. Because these environments can differ so widely, companies need to evaluate their air quality and the level of pollutants to "establish a control strategy".

Indoor vegetation is a relatively inexpensive way to improve air quality. A 1989 report by Nasa advised that indoor spaces include at least one plant for every 30m squared because they produce oxygen and can also rid the air of pollutants.

Portulacaria afra, an indigenous succulent plant locally referred to as spekboom, is known for its carbon-storing capabilities and ability to convert this to oxygen and is a good option for an indoor environment, according to a 2011 University of Cape Town report.

Plants not only improve indoor air quality; recent research has shown they have a positive effect on mental health. A 2014 study published in the journal Health Promotion International analysed research on the topic and found that "when individuals are presented with nature-based stimuli" they become less stressed, more comfortable and are able to think more clearly.

Paragon Interior's Lauren Paul said that having an unproductive day at the office has been accepted by many people as "just the nature of work. Many of us can relate to going to the office expecting to achieve a set number of tasks by the end of the day, only to spend the day in disruption and achieving a third of what we set out to do."

But, said Paul, good office design "can change the health and happiness of employees; frustration doesn't need to stay the status quo".


Five ways companies help employees stay healthy and happy

  • At insurance company Outsurance's headquarters in Centurion, where 2 700 employees work daily, a running or walking track surrounds the building, according to chief executive officer Ernst Gouws. He said this promotes exercise before, during or after work. "There is a fingerprint recognition point where employees can clock each lap they do. We encourage people to go out during breaks and we give incentives, like lucky draws every few months, for anyone who has participated."
  • Outsurance's Gouws said his company is largely made up of call centre employees who don't earn very high salaries "so buying more expensive healthy food may not be an option". The company removed unhealthy food, such as white bread, from their canteen and subsidises healthier meals. Alloy manufacturer Johnson Matthey also subsidises healthy food in its canteen, according to its human resources director, Ndima Rawana. He said healthy meals, such as chicken breasts and green salad, are priced at only R5.
  • Open Box Software runs a number of "wellness" initiatives for its 130 employees in its Cape Town offices, including a daily free healthy breakfast, outings to the beach and an on-site biokineticist who also runs exercise classes. The company's Cecilia de Freitas said: "We've found that employees who don't want to come to work are unhappy. We've tried to incorporate 'life' into the workplace, through exercise as well as recreational activities, so people don't have to make that choice between 'work', 'health' and 'life'." 
  • To reduce the number of employees who smoke, Outsurance's Gouws said that about "six members of upper management quit [smoking] to set an example to the rest of the company". Incentives for quitting were also given in the form of lucky draws for tablets or smartphones. More than "100 employees quit smoking last year alone", he said.
  • At Johnson Matthey, all 402 employees have access to an on-site clinic staffed by three full-time nurses and a doctor who consults twice a week. Workers can be screened for common diseases and receive basic medical services any day of the week for free, according to Rawana.

Depression in the workplace

The negative effect of depression on the workplace is "higher than any other chronic mental and physical disorder", according to psychiatrist Frans Korb.

Depression "presenteeism" [people come to work when they are experiencing a depressive episode] had a five times greater counteractive effect than being absent from work, said Korb, a board member of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and of medical scheme Discovery Health's medical advisory division.

Depression affects cognitive functioning such as decisionmaking, memory and problem-solving. "If an employee has depression at work, they are five times less productive than an employee absent due to depression," said Korb.

Sadag found that a quarter of South African employees have been diagnosed with depression by a medical professional. The organisation surveyed more than 1 000 employees and found, on average, depressed workers took 18 days of sick leave annually because of their condition.

However, half of respondents took no time off and continued to work while experiencing symptoms of depression. Most of these people struggle to think optimally because they cannot concentrate. More than half of the respondents said they took "more time to complete simple jobs" during depressive episodes.

One of Sadag's survey participants explained the effect depression had on his daily life: "Trying to handle all my work responsibilities is challenging for me; it takes me a lot longer to get things done. It's like you can't see the small steps, you don't have the energy to take big steps, so you feel stuck. Trapped. At the end of the day very little work gets done. This kind of thinking makes it difficult to do any normal daily tasks, not just those related to work."

The research found nearly a third of employees who took time off for depression did not tell their employers the real reason they were absent from work.

Sadag founder Zane Wilson said employees may fear disclosing their condition to employers because of the stigma attached to mental illnesses. "People may worry their boss thinks they are not working hard enough and using depression as an excuse," she said. "They may worry that if they disclose they are at risk of losing their job and not finding another." 

Seventy-five percent of managers who took part in the study said they did not have formal support structures for dealing with an employee with depression and only half knew how many sick days people took off because of the illness.

Wilson said the results of this study "emphasise more education and training is needed for managers, who seem eager to help but don't feel equipped or supported in doing so".

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