The office affects health

Toolbox - mobile storage at Svensk Byggtjänst whose office was nominated as "Finest Office 2016″

Some offices make us feel better - while others shouldn't be used at all. That sums up studies from Sweden's only specialised office evaluators.

- Some offices are worse from a health perspective and should therefore be avoided as much as possible, says Christina Bodin Danielsson.

Eight hours a day. Five days a week. Between 50 and 80 percent of the Western workforce spends its weekdays in an office. Yet there is surprisingly little research on what different types of indoor environments do to us. In fact, for Sweden, there is only one researcher who focuses entirely on offices.

- My own conclusion is that some office types are simply worse from a health perspective and should be avoided as much as possible.

Christina Bodin Danielsson, a researcher at KTH School of Architecture and affiliated with the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University, says. She also works as a practising architect, specialising in offices.

Already as a student, she began to seek analyses of the built environment. The main question - how the physical environment affects us - was never addressed, she thought. Neither during her architectural training nor when she was later sketching out projects.

- Why is this office building being built for this organisation, what do they want with this building? What is the objective, apart from the need for space and the desire to be in the geographical location in which it is now located?

She took matters into her own hands. In her thesis "The Office: An Explorative Study", she interviewed 491 people from 26 different companies in different industries. They were asked to rank their self-perceived general health, emotional health and job satisfaction. Another study, involving 1,852 participants, looked at sickness absence, both short and long term.

The result: that the choice of office type seems to affect people's health.

- The highest risk of long-term sickness absence was reported in all traditional office settings, and the lowest in medium-sized office settings. Self-rated general health was also worst there.

Instead, the cell office was the best per former, closely followed by the much-discussed flex office, which has no place of its own. The studies controlled for a range of background factors, such as age, gender, sector and job title, to ensure that the type of office was the independent variable.

Sweden's most common office type, medium-sized office landscapes, are consistently at the bottom. The noise seems to make us feel worse.

- Yes, it's the same types of offices that 'stand out' as good or bad, says Christina Bodin Danielsson and continues:

- The working environment is very important for health. In the case of office work, mental health is particularly critical. Factors such as the relationship with colleagues and the manager have a major impact here, as do demands and a sense of self-control. Exposure to stress raises stress levels in the body, but it is not always physiological but emotional. For example, you may feel mentally tired and unfocused.

She is currently researching the future of office design and the factors that will influence how our workplaces will look. She is also studying whether there are links between social support and the office environment.

- Lots is unexplored. Above all, it is a problem that different disciplines do not meet and work together under a common umbrella.

The trend right now is to convert both own offices and landscapes into flex offices. A way to bring people together while increasing flexibility, some argue. And a way to minimise the number of desks, others add. The office form was first introduced in Sweden at consultancies in the 1990s, where staff are only in the office a few days a week. Since then, it has spread to almost every industry.

But even this type of office has changed with digital developments.

- Flexibility, as previously desired, has increased.

Employers who are in the process of rebuilding should think twice, says Christina Bodin Danielsson.

- Avoid the "quacks" with quick fixes. Use the office as a tool to create supportive working environments.

Pictured, our Toolbox used in these offices. However, this picture is from a different context.

Facts about office landscapes

  • Medium-sized office buildings are the most common type of office in Sweden. When the Stress Research Institute surveyed users' views of the office type in 2012, 21% of respondents said they disliked it "very much". Thirty-two per cent said "quite bad", 24 per cent "neither bad nor good", 19 per cent "good" and 4 per cent "very good".
  • On one point, however, this type of office comes out on top, and that is the question of what employees think of their boss. Here, the manager is most popular and is perceived as both responsive and visible.

Source: Christina Bodin Danielsson, Stress Research Institute.

What the research says about office types

  • Small offices: four-nine people.
  • Medium office landscape:10-24 people per room.
  • Large office environments: more than 24 people.
  • Cell offices: private rooms.
  • Shared room: two-three persons.
  • Flex office: without own workplace.
  • Combination office: with a personal workstation in your own or shared space.

Source: Christina Bodin Danielsson, Stress Research Institute.