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5 Ways Your Office May Be Harming Your Health

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Office

Discover what you can do to make your work environment a healthier place to be.

We spend more time at work than anywhere else during an average day, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s time-use survey, and while many aspects of the office can be good for us — using our minds in novel ways, collaborating with others, and more — our workspace might also be working against our best efforts to be healthy.

Here are five ways your workplace might be harming your health — along with helpful tips on what you can do about it.

The Open-Office Plan

Hyped as the great hope for workplace collaboration, open offices also serve as petri dishes for common colds and flus. A recent Danish study of 2,400 workers found that employees in open-plan offices required a whopping 62 percent more sick days than those in cellular offices. (Not surprisingly perhaps, the number of employees in an office, regardless of floorplan, also increased the number of average sick days people took.)

What you can do: Nearly 70 percent of offices have open-plan layouts, according to the International Facility Management Association, so do your part to stay healthy: Wash your hands often, get exercise to boost your overall wellness, support your immune system by taking vitamin D supplements (for more on building your immune system, see “The Best Defense: Boost Your Immune System“).

And if you feel like you’re coming down with something, stay home to avoid spreading germs. A recent survey by Career Builder found that 72 percent of people go to work when sick. By choosing to stay home while you’re under the weather, you might just encourage your colleagues to take those allotted sick days, too.

The HVAC System

Modern office buildings are designed to keep outside air outside and inside air in, but this can cause surprising health issues that are difficult to pinpoint. Recycled air can recirculate volatile organic compounds, toxic particles emitted by printers and copy machines, cleaning solutions, and fragrances your colleagues may wear.

In addition, the very filters within HVAC systems that are designed to keep your office air pure can be breeding grounds for molds. It’s estimated that as many as a quarter of Americans are susceptible to mold-related illnesses (causing allergies, acute sinusitis, or asthma), as well as a condition called Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), which can be triggered by exposure to pathogenic molds such as black molds.

What you can do: If you sense that you’re having reactions to your office’s air quality, report it immediately to your office manager and request that it gets looked into, advises the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).

Beyond that, the best thing you can do to take matters into your own hands is to become an office gardener. A recent Pennsylvania State University study showed that potted snake plant, spider plant, and golden pothos — common and easily grown plants —were effective at reducing levels of indoor ozone pollutants.

Your Desk

You’ve read the news headlines: Sitting is the new smoking. Research shows that sitting for long stretches at our desks might be one of the unhealthiest things we do each day — even if we regularly exercise outside of work. A study of 17,000 adults published in the May 2009 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that prolonged sitting is associated with numerous health risks, including cardiovascular disease. Another study, published in the January 2011 Journal of the American College of Cardiology, examined 4,500 cases from the Scottish Health Survey and found that participants who spent two or more hours idling in front of a computer screen every day doubled their risk of heart attacks. And sitting may be harming your back over the long term as well.

But standing desks may not be the best option either. Two new studies — one from the University of Michigan, the other from England’s University of Exeter — show that standing all day can have consequences, too. They list serious musculoskeletal disorders in the back and legs, aching leg muscles, swollen feet, and overall fatigue as the issues.

What you can do: Mix it up! Sit, stand, and move around, changing your work position at least every 20 minutes. And think NEAT — nonexercise activity thermogenesis, a term coined by obesity researcher James Levine, MD, PhD, for all the incidental movement you do throughout the day that isn’t formal exercise. NEAT is also code for “get out of your chair and walk around as often as possible,” he says. (For more NEAT ideas, see “Don’t Just Sit There.”)

Your Office Breakroom — and Bathroom

Microbes may be on the menu with the germiest spots being the coffee- or teapot handle, refrigerator handle, microwave control panel, refrigerator handle, vending-machine buttons, and faucets, as well as the doorhandle in the bathroom.

What you can do: Follow the old standby your parents reminded you about: Wash your hands frequently. And help others, too: Wipe down the commonly used handles when you have a moment.

Fluorescent Lighting

People who work under harsh fluorescent lights have a higher risk of developing eye issues, including cataracts and macular degeneration, according to a recent study by European Commission researchers. That’s because these lights beam out UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C radiation.

What you can do: Ask for an office with a window and natural lighting: Two recent studies — one from Northwestern University, the other from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s School of Architecture — show that daylight helps you work better and feel healthier, as well as sleep better at night. And both found that natural light improved people’s overall well-being.

But with the open layout dominating most offices, this is a rarity. So, get a desk lamp with a warm white bulb to balance out the overhead fluorescent lighting’s brilliance.

TELL US: What do you do to contribute to a healthier workplace environment? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Michael Dregni is an Experience Life deputy editor.

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