Open-plan offices increase risk of sick leave

Analysis

Open-plan offices increase risk of sick leave

A new study suggests office design has an impact on sick leave rates among white collar workers, with those in open-plan offices most at risk of short sick leave spells.

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A new study suggests office design has an impact on sick leave rates among white collar workers, with those in open-plan offices most at risk of short sick leave spells.
 
Researchers from the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University in Sweden undertook a study into the effect of office type (eg cell-office, shared-room office, small to large open-plan office, flex-office and combi-office) on sickness absence among nearly 2000 white collar workers, with a view to addressing a knowledge gap.

“… there is a lack of studies concerning the determinants of sickness absence among white-collar workers,” they explained.

“In particular, the possible relationship between the physical office environment and sick leave rates is under-studied.”
 
A lack of privacy

The researchers found a ‘significant excess risk’ of absence in terms of short sick leave spells ( a week or less) among employees in open-plan offices, especially women, meaning these offices were ‘less good’ for employee health than other office types.

The researchers said a plausible explanation for the higher prevalence of sick leave among employees in open-plan offices was “the lower potential to exert personal control in traditional open-plan offices associated with architectural features that lead to a lack of visual and acoustic privacy..."

They added: “Personal control is strongly related to office employees’ environmental satisfaction, as well as perception of privacy and distraction. In the increasingly ubiquitous open-plan offices, the latter two factors are combined with noise and often hard to satisfy. The latter is considered the major stressor in open-plan offices when perceived as ‘irrelevant sound’, with negative effects on both health outcomes and cognitive performance. Since privacy, besides acoustic, also includes visual privacy, the architectural design of the office, including workstation design and office layout, is important.”

Women most at risk

Other explanations for the negative health outcomes in open-plan offices were said to inlcude “the risk of infection could be higher among people sharing workspace”.

The researchers said the fact that the association between open-plan offices and short sick leave spells was especially strong among women may be due to ‘a greater vulnerability to the negative environmental stimuli’ in open-plan offices.

Source: Christina Bodin Danielsson, Holendro Singh Chungkham, Cornelia Wulff & Hugo Westerlund (2014): Office
design's impact on sick leave rates
, Ergonomics, 57:2, 139-147, DOI: 10.1080/00140139.2013.871064
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