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Updated 08 October 2018

Stressed at work? Open office plan might help

Maybe it's time to retire the office cubicle and go for open workspaces.

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A new study in the current online edition of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, suggests that open workspaces without partitions between desks encourage employees to be more active and help curb stress.

"We are becoming an increasingly sedentary workforce, and anything that we can do, even passively, to nudge physical activity up will have enormous benefits," said lead researcher Casey Lindberg.

Lower stress levels

He and his colleagues tracked physical activity and stress levels of 231 government employees, all of whom were described as healthy. Some worked in an open office, with either low partitions between desks or none at all. Others worked in offices outfitted with high-walled cubicles or in fully walled-off spaces.

Workers in open offices were 20% more active than those in cubicles, and 32% more active than colleagues in private offices, the study found. And compared to more sedentary colleagues, more active workers had 14% lower stress levels outside the office.

But how does it get people moving?

"The difference in activity at the office may be in part due to an increased awareness of others when in an open workstation setting," Lindberg said.

That may prompt workers to move around in search of privacy when engaging with others in person or by phone.

For three days and two nights, participants in the study wore devices to monitor their heart and overall activity. They also completed hourly surveys to track mood swings on the job. A longer survey at the end gauged overall stress levels.

After adjusting for a range of factors, including age, gender and obesity, researchers observed that overall, men were more active at the office than women, and younger and leaner workers were less stressed on the job than their older, heavier peers.

'A new conversation'

On average, though, those working in open settings were found to be significantly more active and less stressed out on the job than those in less open work environments.

That said, Lindberg noted that while an open office layout appears to be associated with better mental health, the study does not prove cause and effect. Other office design features, such as access to stairwells or informal meeting spaces, might also affect worker stress, Lindberg said.

Still, he and his team hope that their findings lead to "a new conversation about the pros and cons of different aspects of office design on health outcomes".

Dr Joe Verghese, chief of the Divisions of Cognitive and Motor Aging at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, reviewed the findings.

"It makes sense that workplace environments, where people spend a major part of their weekdays, may influence stress levels," he said.

"A caveat is that there are a number of other factors, including the type of work, workflow, education, cultural and gender differences, and personality types, that might also influence stress levels," Dr Verghese added. 

Image credit: iStock 

 
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