A Swedish study published by the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors indicates that open plan offices really do make workers sick. The retrospective survey of over 1,850 people found that those in open offices fared worst. The study found “A significant excess risk for sickness absence was found in terms of short sick leave spells in the three open-plan offices.” In other words, workers were more likely to call in sick for a day or two when they were in an open plan setting. Men seemed particularly stressed by flex plan offices (hot desking with no assigned workstations). Women took more lengthy sick leaves if they had to work in large open offices.
Too Much Noise, Too Little Control
The researchers suggest that environmental stressors inherent in open plan offices may be partially to blame. They point to the example of, “architectural features that lead to a lack of visual and acoustic privacy in combination with the functional features that are related to job characteristics such as lack of autonomy.” Sometimes, employees may become so stressed that they simply need to take time off to decompress. Or, they may have less ability to isolate themselves from other workers. That means the cold or flu going around is going to spread with ease. The more people crammed into the space, the bigger this problem is likely to get.
Keeping Workers Well = Treating Them Well
Interestingly, it’s apparently not sharing space that’s the issue. Employees in shared-room offices didn’t take a significantly different number of sick days compared to those in individual offices. Interestingly, one of the features the study used to define a shared office was this: Workstations are freely arranged in the room. For privacy reasons, sometimes screens or other divisional elements are added between workstations.
Few businesses are likely to address noise and privacy issues by putting workers back in offices—shared or otherwise. Instead, the focus is on reducing distractions and giving employees more control over workstation configuration. Our desktop panels and cubicle wall extenders can do both since we provide a range of heights and colors in materials that minimize noise and increase visual privacy.