Is Your Open Office Making You Sick? Or Is It The Environment?

Open Office Illness

The concept of the open office is nothing new. In fact, the first modern office, which opened in 1906—Frank Lloyd Wright’s the Larkin Administration Building in New York City—was open.

In the past decade—and, not coincidentally, particularly after the recession of 2008—the open office was born again. But not everyone is so enthused. An article by Oliver Burkemann in the US edition of The Guardian may have summed it up best in its title: “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell.” 

Burkemann is not alone. While a 2010 survey of facility management professionals by the International Facility Management Association shows almost 70 percent of offices have open plans, numerous studies have found that employees in open-office spaces are less productive, more frustrated, and sick more often than employees in traditional office environments. 

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And they are sick not just because of the spread of germs, but because of noise. According to an article titled “Noise in the Office Workplace” by Lorraine E. Maxwell, associate professor at the Department of Design and Environmental Analysis at Cornell University, the effects of noise on employees in open-office environments include decreased productivity (especially for complex tasks); increased illness, hormone levels, and stress; fatigue; lower morale and job satisfaction; and interference with speech.

Sick Building Syndrome

You’re feeling fine until you walk into your office. Suddenly, you’re coughing and sneezing, feeling queasy, maybe even a little dizzy. You could be working in a sick building. 

Though Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is commonly used to describe a building that is “unhealthy” in various ways, from having poor ventilation to mold to lead paint to asbestos, the EPA uses the term to describe “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.” 

Building Related Illness (BRI), according to the EPA, is used “when symptoms of diagnosable illness are identified and can be attributed directly to airborne building contaminants.” One of the difficulties in identifying SBS or BRI is the host of symptoms that contaminated buildings can cause, which, depending on what makes a building sick—which can include contaminants from outdoor pollutants, as well as radon, formaldehyde, asbestos, dust, lead paint, and mold—can be anything from itchy skin to weight gain to nosebleeds, depression, and even cancer.

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One of the ways to tell if your symptoms are building-related is to observe whether those symptoms disappear or lessen in certain environments. The EPA estimates that one in four new or renovated buildings can be classified as a sick building. 

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