Colds and flu

Updated 11 October 2017

5 ways the office can make you sick

Your flu might get better by simply not being in a toxic office . . .

We are told to stay home when we are sick. “You don’t want to spread your germs everywhere,” your manager might say. But what if your workplace is the source of your illness?

Scientists call it the “sick building syndrome” and it refers to the phenomenon where workers in the same building claim to experience acute health problems.  

Read: Sick office syndrome

“The sick building syndrome comprises various nonspecific symptoms that occur in the occupants of a building,” say researchers from the Patil Medical College in India.

“This feeling of ill health increases sickness absenteeism and causes a decrease in productivity of the workers. As this syndrome is increasingly becoming a major occupational hazard.”

But what are the signs that your office is making you sick? Can the flu that just doesn’t want to go away be caused by your office? We look at five ways in which your office can make you ill.

1. Insufficient ventilation

Some older buildings don't have proper circulation in place. This can lead to a build-up of carbon monoxide and other compounds such as benzene and styrene, according to research from the Maine Indoor Air Quality Council. This causes micro-organisms and germs to circulate, leading to breathing problems. If you’re already suffering from respiratory illnesses, you’re more likely to develop breathing problems.

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2. Stress

Research from the Mayo Clinic shows stress can affect our health in many adverse ways. Besides the psychological toll, stress can have an impact on our blood pressure, heart, brain and even immune system. Excessive stress at work, or an environment where there is poor communication and bad relationships, can cause stress and make employees sick.

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Read: Does your desk make you sick?

3. Dirty carpets or tiles

Many allergens and contaminants, including pollen, bacteria, viruses, fungi and mould can accumulate in stagnant water on ceiling tiles, insulation, carpets and upholstery. Researchers has shown this can lead to illnesses, especially in those prone to allergies or asthma.

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4. Overcrowding

Even though offices should be spacious, some companies try to save money by stuffing as many people as they can into a restricted space. “In offices with a high density of occupancy, airborne diseases can spread rapidly from one worker to another,” say researchers from Patil Medical College.

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5. Poor lighting and a lack of sunlight

Studies from Northwestern University have shown that “office workers with more light exposure at the office had longer sleep duration, better sleep quality, more physical activity and better quality of life compared to office workers with less light exposure in the workplace”. Exposure to light also affects mood, alertness and your metabolism.

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Read more:

4 things people do wrong on sick leave

Office chairs are a pain in the neck

'Walking meetings' may boost employees' health and productivity


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Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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