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How Your Office Is Harming Your Health

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Many of us spend a large chunk of our waking lives at work, but rarely do we give much thought to how our on-the-clock environment might be affecting how we feel around the clock.

If the recent literature has anything to say about it, working in offices could be making us feel pretty crappy. Open office plans (and cubicles, to a certain extent) may be the worst offenders when it comes to harming employee wellness and productivity, and some studies on the fallbacks of the popular design have called the entire structure of American work life into question.

"The thinking goes that employees will be happier and more productive if they work together instead of being separated by thick office walls. Except they aren't," Fast Company wrote of the open office trend. "Far more workers stuck in cubicles and open office spaces are dissatisfied with their work environments than people in enclosed private offices."

As a result, flexible work schedules and alternative office designs that incorporate greater privacy and calming elements are becoming more desirable and commonplace alternatives to spending 40+ hours a week in a cubicle or on an open office floor. And with entrepreneurial and freelance career paths becoming viable options for more American workers and some millennials ditching the 9-to-5, a redefining of the American workplace may indeed be slowly underway.

The negative impacts of various office environments on health and productivity alone provide a compelling argument for the need to change the way we spend our work days. Here are five ways working in an office could be harming your health and happiness.

Open offices could be making you unproductive and unhappy.

A 2011 review of studies examining the effects of various types of office environments found that open offices -- though they do tend to foster a spirit of innovation and a collective mission -- can have a negative impact on workers when it comes to focus, productivity, creativity and job satisfaction, the New Yorker reported. Employees in open offices may also experience higher stress levels and less concentration and motivation than those working in standard offices. This may be in part due to the fact that interruptions are more frequently experienced by employees in open offices, which can be a major hindrance to productivity.

A 2013 study of 42,000 U.S. workers also found that employees with private offices were more satisfied at work than those who worked in open spaces.

Your work environment could be upping your stress levels.

More than eight in 10 U.S. workers report being stressed about their jobs, and a recent Monster.com poll found that 42 percent of U.S. workers have left a job due to an excessively stressful environment. The same poll also found that 61 percent of American workers believe that work stress has been a cause of illness for them.

The physical office environment could play a significant roll in spiking stress levels for some workers.

A Cornell study, cited by the New Yorker, also found that workers who were exposed to the noise level of an open office for three hours had higher levels of the hormone known as adrenaline, which is associated with the body's stress response.

You may be more susceptible to getting sick.

One in four U.S. employees goes to work sick, according to a recent survey by NSF International, and particularly in an open office environment, it's easy to see how colds can get passed around.

A 2011 Danish study suggested that number of sick days taken is positively correlated with the number of inhabitants in a space. Occupants of open offices had 62 percent more sick days than those who worked in cellular offices, the researchers found.

Poor air quality can also contribute to illness. The air inside a commercial building can sometimes be up to 100 times more polluted than the air outside, Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

A noisy workspace could be killing your concentration.

With phones ringing and colleagues chatting, typing and moving around, open offices are notoriously noisy and distracting -- and the sound levels can have a significant impact on worker well-being. A 2006 UCSF study found that workers in open offices were more likely to perceive noise than those in cellular offices, in addition to temperature-related discomfort and poor air quality.

Noise-related distractions in open offices are the "enemy of focus," Diane Hoskins, co-chief executive of the Gensler architecture firm, told the New York Times, adding, “It’s meaningful time that’s being lost.”

A sedentary lifestyle increases your risk of disease.

We've all heard that "sitting is the new smoking," and it might actually be true: Your desk job could literally be killing you.

In many offices, sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen is the only acceptable way to go about your everyday work. Research has linked a sedentary lifestyle -- the kind many desk jockeys lead -- with a higher risk of diabetes and cardiovascular events. Sitting at a desk all day can also contribute to aches and pains, while staring at a computer screen for hours on end can trigger vision problems and headaches.

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