Your Office May Be Making You Sick

Last Updated May 9, 2011 10:16 AM EDT

If your office has high ceilings, low cubicle walls and access to sunlight, it may be a boost to your health. In the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Lehrer reported on several studies linking poor office environment to higher stress levels and described how office design can influence your mood, your cognitive skills, and your memory. One of the studies looked at two measures of stress--heart rate variability and levels of the stress hormone cortisol--in people working for the same organization but in two separate office buildings, an old office space which was characterized by floor-to-ceiling walls, poor natural light, and offices that run around the perimeter, and a newly-renovated office building that had a more open-air feel, cubicles with lower partitions and offices in the core of the floor. Here's what the study reported:
  • Workers in the old office space experience less heart rate variability at night and a higher rise in morning cortisol, two factors that are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
  • Workers in the new office space reported greater satisfaction in the air quality, amount of daylight
    and access to window views compared with those in the older office space.
  • Although air-flow and ventilation were similar in the two office buildings, workers perceived the new space, with a more open design, to have better air quality.
  • The old offices also had more low-frequency mechanical noise compared with the new space and poorer noise-dampening acoustics. This type of noise has been linked to discomfort and the stress response, the authors wrote. If you have any low-humming machines in your office, it might be a good idea to move them outside your office space if possible.
In past studies, having a view of nature and being exposed to sunlight have been associated with lower depressive symptoms in settings like hospitals. Other studies have found three factors linked to employee satisfaction with their workplace: privacy/acoustics, ventilation/temperature, and lighting/views. And Lehrer pointed to other factors that may influence creativity, like the color blue, writing,

Though people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on tasks requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children's toy. In fact, subjects in the blue environment generated twice as many "creative outputs" as subjects in the red one. Why? According to the scientists, the color blue automatically triggers associations with openness and sky, while red makes us think of danger and stop signs.

If you look at Feng Shui, the practice of living in harmony with the natural world, the color blue is associated with calm and soothing, adventure and exploration. In office Feng Shui, the best light is natural sunlight. Most of us can't do much to improve the office we have, but knowing that nature and blue sky can ease your mental state, it may be a good idea to bring some plants or flowers into your office or get outside for breaks (or even duck into a conference room that has a view now and then).
Do you feel your office space is relaxing or causes you stress?
Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for the New York Times, national magazines and websites. Follow her on twitter.
Photo courtesy of flickr user archie4oz
  • Laurie Tarkan

    Laurie Tarkan is an award-winning health journalist who writes for The New York Times and many national magazines. She is a contributing editor at Fit Pregnancy magazine and the author of three books, Perfect Hormone Balance for Fertility, Perfect Hormone Balance for Pregnancy and My Mother's Breast: Daughters Ace Their Mothers' Cancer.. You can follow her on Twitter at @LaurieTarkan.