Space & Innovation

8 Ways Your Office Job Is Killing You

The modern office has all kinds of comforts and conveniences. Too bad it's also something of a death trap.

Looking at the entire spectrum of occupations humans have held over the course of our history, working a desk job looks like a pretty sweet gig. Very little physical exertion is required. No immediate dangers lurk in the typical office environment. Climate control. Comfortable chairs. Casual Fridays.

Too bad the modern office is something of a death trap. There's nothing inherently wrong with the design of office spaces necessarily; it's how we've adapted to the routine of long commutes, excessive sitting and an overall lifestyle that in no way promotes healthy habits.

In this slideshow, discover the different ways that your office is slowly killing you.

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A desk job is more dangerous than it seems. Sure, in the short term, there's little that a typical office worker would encounter that would threaten greater harm than a paper cut. In the long run, however, prolonged periods of sitting over many years have been tied to increased risks of serious illnesses, such as heart disease, and premature death.

A sedentary schedule is so potentially harmful in the long run that one Mayo Clinic doctor even compared the enduring health consequences of sitting to the ill effects of smoking, as Discovery News reported in 2012.

New guidance published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine states office workers should be on their feet at a minimum of two hours a day, working up eventually to four hours through the implementation of standing desks or regular walks.

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A sedentary lifestyle puts office workers at risk for not only certain adverse health conditions in the long term; in the short run it also can lead workers to become overweight or obese, which in turn has its own potential medical consequences.

In a study published in the journal Preventative Medicine in 2010, researchers at the Université de Montréal used a variety of health databases in Canada to determine that a lack of physical exertion during work hours sparked an increase in obesity between 1978 and 2005.

"People eat better and exercise more today than they did in the 1970s, yet obesity rates continue to rise," said lead author Carl-Étienne Juneau in a press release. "My hypothesis is that our professional life is linked to this seemingly contradictory phenomenon."

The United States has seen a similar surge in obesity rates, which have doubled in the past 35 years and now stand at 34.9 percent, or 78.9 million U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Over the course of a year, the typical U.S. commuter averages 38 hours in traffic total. Zero in on the big cities alone, and that number spikes to 60 hours annually spent in traffic, with the D.C. metropolitan area leading the nation at 67 hours.

All those hours spent idling on roads are certainly a waste of time and money, but they're also damaging to commuters' health, particularly those traveling long distance. As is the case with sitting too long at the office, spending too much time behind the wheel of a car can impact metabolic and cardiovascular health, found a study published in 2012 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The further the distance traveled, the greater the impact. Commuters who lived 10 miles or more from work were more likely to have high blood pressure. Those who were more than 15 miles from their offices had a higher risk of obesity.

Depending on mode of transportation, long-distance commuters also typically are exposed to more air pollution. Gasoline-powered cars, diesel cars and diesel buses delivered the highest concentrations, according to a 2010 study from the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Air pollution has been linked to short-terms cardiovascular and respiratory issues.

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Workers increasingly pass up what should be sleep hours in order to spend more time on the job.

Last year, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine released a study that found that work was the dominant activity exchanged for sleep based on an analysis of survey findings that including 124,000 participants. These short sleepers typically slept six hours or less and reported working 1.55 hours more on weekdays and 1.86 more hours on weekend or holidays, the study found. Business travelers and workers holding down multiple jobs were most affected.

The CDC has described sleep insufficiency as a "public health epidemic", with lack of sleep "linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors." Adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep, but survey data reveal that nearly 30 percent of adults average six hours or less per night.

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Just as employees might be up at night late at night working instead of sleeping, their circadian rhythms may also be disrupted during the day, at least for workers in offices lacking natural light exposure.

Natural light exposure can have psychological and physical effects, regulating mood, attentiveness and metabolism. According to a 2014 study by researchers at Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, workers who spend their day under the glow of artificial lights only slept an average of 46 minutes less than those who had access to office windows that let in natural light.

The authors of the study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, assert the lack of natural light can have profound effects on health, as workers without windows reported lower scores on quality of life measures and had more physical problems.

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With tech giants like Google and Facebook leading the charge on the open-office style workspaces, these layouts have been adopted by an estimated 70 percent of American companies who have low or no partitions between workers, according to the International Facility Management Association. Though they may appear to have taken a cue from industrial agriculture and are merely meant to maximize space, open offices are supposed to foster creativity, collaboration and "serendipity" among team members.

Unfortunately, those same walls that supposed inhibited teamwork also helped reduce disease transmission. Four Stockholm University scientists analyzed nearly 2,000 employees working in seven different kinds of office layouts, which ranged from private offices to open layouts with dozens of employees. Workers in traditional open offices were more likely to call in sick, according to the study published last year in the journal Ergonomics.

Influenza, conjunctivitis and norovirus are among a handful of diseases that spread quickly when humans are in close quarters. Maybe the chicken coop model of employee space management isn't in the best interest of team cooperation after all.

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The open office model spreads not only disease but also noise. The lack of privacy means conversations of coworkers can be heard by surrounding team members, who are typically packed along long tables in large rooms.

The noise isn't just having an impact of productivity; it's also affecting employee health. In 2001, Cornell researchers published a study finding that even moderate noise levels in offices can negatively impact health, increasing the risk of heart disease and musculoskeletal problems.

Sustained noise levels increase worker anxiety, triggering the release of the stress hormone epinephrine. The additional stress led workers to focus more on their assigned tasks, but they were less effective at performing them. The added focus in turn made them less aware of discomfort, so they were less likely to make ergonomic adjustments.

Surprisingly, workers didn't report higher levels of stress due to noise in their self-assessments, which suggests the employees may not have been aware how the environmental conditions were affecting them.

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Decades of office building construction have taught us a thing or two, and newer buildings come with certain advantages over their older counterparts. Lead paint no longer coats the outside of walls, and asbestos no longer hides within them.

There is something in the air, however, in newer office buildings that poses a potential threat to the health of office workers. Polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) appear in stain-resistant furniture, paint, carpeting and other objects in the office. PFCs spread through dust and have been tied to reproductive, developmental and immune problems.

Over 95 percent of American have PFCs in their blood, and office workers have the highest percentage of any group, according to a study published in 2013 journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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