Workspace Wellness

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Take a closer look at your workspace. Does it have natural light? Is the floor plan open or do you have a private space? How often do you get up from your desk? Office design can help or hurt your efforts to be healthy in ways you might not think of. It has the potential to make a difference in your stress level, how active you are, or how often you get sick. Office design can influence your health in important ways.woman sitting at a desk

Some of the most important elements of health-promoting workspaces include natural ventilation, less toxic building materials, and space for exercise, according to Craig Stockbridge of GBD Architects Incorporated in Portland, Oregon. Stockbridge says he sees a growing trend where companies are giving workers more control and comfort in their workstations, allowing individuals to adjust lighting, climate control, and furniture. But you don’t need to have total control of your environment to make your time at the office better for your health: Whether you have the corner office or a cramped cubicle, use these five tips to make your workspace healthier.

Windows: Real and Imagined
Working next to a window with a view can reduce stress and improve overall health. A window exposes your body to natural light, decreasing headaches, and reducing your risk for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), according to a review conducted by the National Renewable Energy Lab. “Quality natural light is one of the single most important natural resources we can integrate in design,” says Stockbridge. Even if you don’t have a corner office with a window, any contact with natural elements––such as indoor plants and even photos or wall-size murals of nature––can help reduce stress.

Desktop Garden
It might seem far-fetched to suggest that keeping a plant on your desk could prevent cancer, but contact with the natural world does seem to play a role in human health. For decades, scientists have noted the healing and restorative effects of owning pets, gardening, having access to green space, and going outdoors. The University of Washington compiled hundreds of studies supporting the benefits of contact with nature. For example, outdoor activities can alleviate symptoms of stress and depression. And, more to the point, workers in an office with plants were out sick fewer days, while their counterparts in plant-less offices were more anxious and stressed.

  • Bring in a potted plant or natural decorative items like shells and rocks.
  • Pin up some landscape photos of your favorite outdoor areas. A picture of your dog counts, too.
  • Switch your screensaver to a natural scene.
  • Take your breaks outdoors as often as possible, especially if you don’t work near a window.

Open-Plan Office Protection Open-plan office layouts, or cubicles, were designed with the best intentions: to improve communication, promote friendly relationships, and increase creativity. But anyone who has toiled away within sneezing distance of their co-workers could tell you that working too close for comfort with colleagues is less than ideal. Australian researchers reviewed the scientific research to date and found that working in an open-plan office may result in stress, fatigue, and increased blood pressure. Those of us in a cubicle farm are also more likely to get the flu and experience eye, nose, and throat irritations.

  • Wash your hands: Wash your hands frequently and keep your workstation clean, especially during flu season. You might also consider getting vaccinated against seasonal influenza.
  • Tune out: Use earplugs or headphones to block out stress-producing noise. Try listening to recorded nature sounds as another way to get a bit of nature while at work.
  • Quiet time: If your workplace has an empty room, such as conference room, take your work there for a while for some peace and quiet.

Take a Stand
Most office workers sit for long periods of time. A growing body of research suggests that sitting for long periods of time can shorten your lifespan, even if you exercise the recommended regime of 30 minutes, five days a week. Too much sitting is associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (See also “How to Sit Less at Work”).treadmill desk

  • Sit-stand desks: Explore installing a sit-stand desk, a workstation that can be adjusted for either sitting or standing. One CDC study found that sit-stand desks users reported better moods and less back pain and neck pain since switching to an adjustable desk.
  • Regular breaks: Another option is to set an alarm on your smartphone or computer, as a reminder to stand up and stretch at least once per hour. Free apps like Big Stretch Reminder and Time Out make it easy to set up recurring alarms, and some even provide stretching and exercise tips (See also “Breaking Good” for more apps and tips).

Speak Up
Don’t be afraid to talk to your manager about what you need. Request a standing desk or a workstation closer to a window. Another way to get your voice heard is to join your organization’s wellness committee. One sportswear manufacturer has a Green Team, a group of employees who meet to discuss ways to promote wellness and sustainability in their workplace. They came up with the “Trash the Can” initiative to remove individual waste bins from desks. As a result, employees need to get up from their desk more often and interact with co-workers, increasing opportunities for brainstorming and creativity––and less sitting.

Sandra Smit, MPH, CHES is a worksite-wellness professional and health educator living in Portland, OR.

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