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Is Your Office Making You Sick?

Most of us spend the vast majority of our time (about nine hours a day, on average) at work, and for a large proportion of us, work time equals office time. Offices have evolved with our job descriptions, but the essence remains the same: Every day we leave our homes to join another group of humans in an environment that is not exactly tailored to our unique specifications but within which we must live (and live productively) for the largest part of our days.

The first year I left academic research (working in a laboratory) for a corporate job (working in an office), I experienced a series of strange health ramifications. On the surface, one might imagine the laboratory environment, where I could potentially be exposed to various dangerous chemicals and strange bugs on a routine basis, would be less healthy than the open-plan office I moved to. But it didn’t play out that way for me. Within a year, I gained about 20 pounds and got sick more times than I ever had in the lab. Worse than that, while I was by all accounts “productive,” I didn’t feel particularly creative. It got me thinking that something (or things) about my new environment was throwing me off. Was my office making me sick? More than that, what can offices learn from laboratories when it comes to keeping people healthy and happy at work?

Come and go as you please

In most research labs, there are no strictly set hours of operation. Some people are early birds and like to get things done while the day is young, and others prefer the solitude of evening or even late night work hours. In the laboratories I worked in, most people wound up working during “standard” working hours (between nine a.m. and six p.m.), but it was commonly accepted that there could and would be deviations from that schedule as needed. What kept people coming to the lab during peak hours was the opportunity to collaborate with others from whose expertise they could learn rather than any strictly enforced rule. This was particularly important for junior lab members who had the most to learn, but it also allowed more senior people to do their work more independently because they had more flexibility in their schedule. This flexibility was particularly helpful for people with children. 

Move around

The single biggest physical difference between the lab and the office was the amount of time I ended up sitting at my desk. Of course, this has a lot to do with the nature of the work. In one instance, I had experiments to perform, which involved being on my feet and moving around quite a bit. My function in the office required primarily writing, reading and talking to other people. There were many, many hours of meetings and phone calls, however, where I needed to collaborate with fellow staff or talk to clients. During these times, I was always sitting. There are plenty of opportunities to “walk and talk” in an office, but it’s often the perception of what doing work looks like (you, hunched over your computer or locked up in a conference room) that hinders people from taking a discussion outdoors. Moving around during these times — going for a walk outdoors or even walking on a treadmill — would make a world of difference to accumulating those 10,000 steps a day we should all be aiming for. Studies show that walking improves workplace performance, but in most offices there’s no mechanism in place to facilitate physical activity of any kind. So we sit.

Studies show that walking improves workplace performance, but in most offices there’s no mechanism in place to facilitate physical activity of any kind. So we sit.

Never eat at your desk

One of the first things you’re told as a fledgling student in any lab is that under no circumstances should you ever eat at your desk. This has to do with keeping you safe and keeping any toxic chemicals or bugs or viruses or any other weird nasties you’re working with in the lab out of your food and out of your body. Having strict rules to prevent eating at your desk means that labs must provide communal spaces where people can have their meals. The consequences of this are not only that you interact with other people while you eat, which helps foster your relationships with coworkers, but also that you eat more mindfully because you’re not working at the same time. In many offices, there is no dedicated lunch room/space for people to take their meals. Or, it’s so uninviting that most people would rather not. Moreover, it goes back to this issue of optics: There seems to be a perception in office culture that taking lunch means you’re not busy enough. It’s a sad state of affairs when normal human bodily functions are perceived as a professional liability.

Wash your hands

A corollary to never eating at your desk, hand washing is another behavior drilled into the mind of every laboratory employee. In an office, we have a false sense of “cleanliness” because we are, in theory, in a safe environment. But the reality is, any time you’re surrounded by other humans, you’re susceptible to communicable disease. While I by no means want to encourage germ phobia, washing your hands before and after eating will go a long way in keeping office bugs away. When in doubt, remember: The first points of entry for most bugs that will get you sick is through your airways or your mouth. If you’ve touched various office “things” (including your beloved laptop) with your grubby little hands, you should probably not be picking up that sandwich.

Keep your shots up to date

Many academic research laboratories are located in medical centers/hospitals. As a result, laboratory researchers are exposed to many of the same hazards that medical personnel are exposed to. Moreover, laboratory and medical personnel are interacting with patients who are sick, so in a certain light, we are also a hazard for them. Because of the more frequent exposure to disease, hospitals have mechanisms in place to provide preventative vaccinations to medical personnel for common diseases like the flu. Since 2010, the CDC has recommended that everyone 6 months and older should get vaccinated every season. Making flu shots standard in the office keeps everyone protected from a preventable and potentially dangerous infection.

Creativity needs alone time

Perhaps the most important cultural difference between the laboratory and the office in my experience is the understanding of what it means to do creative work. In the lab, expertise is shared but ultimately you’re in charge of your own experiments. This means a fair amount of alone time to think, plan, troubleshoot and even daydream about what you ought to do next. Meetings serve the purpose of getting feedback, but they are not a way to get work done. Not so in a typical office. So many hours of the day are dedicated to communicating your activities to others and securing approvals or aligning to some “process” that it can often feel like an exercise in bureaucracy. Work, in the laboratory sense, is a solitary endeavor, the results of which are shared with and improved upon through interaction with a team, but accomplishing the work is ultimately up to the individual. With this independence comes a responsibility: If you’re not working, it’s on you and there’s no process to hide behind. Moreover, when you are working and getting results, there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment and ownership that motivates you to keep going. More than anything else, independence is a cornerstone of creativity in the laboratory and one that our modern office culture could learn and improve from.

(Photo: Stocksy.com)

Filed under: Health

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Anastasia Liapis

Anastasia Liapis, PhD completed her doctoral training in Genetics at the Mount Sinai School of Biomedical Sciences and her post-doctoral fellowship in Immunology at the Skirball Institute of Biomolecular Medicine at NYU Langone. She has worked as a scientific advisor, strategist and writer with various healthcare communications firms on therapies spanning multiple therapeutic categories including oncology, women's health, genetics, immunology, vaccines, respiratory, cardiovascular and metabolic disease. Anastasia is passionate about science and she loves to tell a good story; she strives to translate complex data into ideas that bring science to life.

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