Plenty of modern-day office workers don’t like the office environment — the cubicles, the fluorescent lights, the stale air, the lack of greenery. But what if your office environment might actually be destroying both your physical and your mental health? Here are eight ways your office is, quite literally, killing you.
1. Sitting at your desk all day is horrible for physical health.
Are you sitting down for this? No, really — are you sitting down? There’s a good chance you are, and that’s not a good thing. According to a 2008 study conducted by Vanderbilt University, the average American sits for 7.7 hours each day. All that sitting greatly increases the risk of an early death. In women, sitting for more than six hours per day correlates with a death rate 94 percent higher than physically active women who sat for less than three hours per day. For men, the numbers are a little bit better but still bad — men who sit for more than six hours per day are 48 percent more likely to die earlier than their physically active counterparts.
Why does sitting for long periods of time lead to much higher death rates? For starters, there’s obesity. Sitting means you’re not being physically active, and not being physically active means you’re much more likely to be overweight or obese. The extra weight, in turn, leads to musculoskeletal problems, along with increased risk of cancer and chronic disease.
Furthermore, merely through the act of sitting at your job, your blood sugar and blood pressure are higher than someone who stands at work. All that sitting adds up over time, leading to chronic health problems and an early death.
2. Not to mention it’s ruining your back.
We tend to think of construction workers, landscapers, and nurses as having jobs that stress their backs — and it’s true, those jobs can endanger your spine if you don’t take proper precautions. Office workers, however, are also at high risk for spinal problems over time because of the poor posture most of us adopt when we sit in front of a computer all day long.
The first thing that happens is that sitting forces our back into a right angle, an angle which the human spine is not really designed for. That right angle posture then starts to flatten out the natural curves in the spine. The flattening process means the back doesn’t absorb shocks as well as it’s supposed to, and that in turn begins to create various spinal injuries and chronic back pain. As anyone who’s dealt with ongoing spinal problems knows, chronic back pain severely reduces the quality of our life. Over time, the pain, lack of mobility due to the pain, and inflammation can actually lead to an early death.
3. Staring at computer screens all day really will ruin your eyes…and more.
Remember when you used to sit too close to the television set and your mother chided, “Don’t sit so close! You’ll ruin your eyes!” Mom’s comment was pretty close to the truth. When the Vision Council studied the effects of screen time on the eyes of American adults in early 2015, they discovered that 61 percent of us experience trouble with irritated eyes, dryness, and blurred vision. That statistic shouldn’t be surprising, given how their study also revealed that almost a third of us spend 8 to 9 hours each day staring at some kind of screen.
If only eye strain were the least of our worries. Researchers in London found that people who stare at a screen for at least four hours of leisure time were nearly 50 percent more likely to die from any cause during the time period of their study. And during the same time frame, screen-watchers were 125 percent more likely to die from a heart-related ailment. Perhaps the worst news of this London study is that exercise doesn’t undo this risk. Spending four or more hours per day during your leisure time in front of a screen, even if you also exercise, means you are far more likely to die before your peers.
4. Don’t forget about your hands and wrists.
While we readily associate computer work with eyestrain, we sometimes forget about the toll keyboards take on our hands and wrists. Carpal tunnel syndrome is more prevalent in women than in men, but extended periods of time spent typing or otherwise working on a computer will increase the risk of carpal tunnel for both men and women. If you add to that other risk factors that are associated with prolonged sitting, such as the obesity mentioned above, carpal tunnel might be creeping closer towards your hands and wrists.
5. Even if you’re not sitting down, your office building itself might be making you sick.
Not all the health risks of office work are associated with sitting in front of a computer all day. Many office workers might be at greater risk for illness because the building they work in has SBS, or Sick Building Syndrome.
In the late 1970s, tenants of new houses, buildings, and nurseries began to complain about a variety of ailments, from asthma to cancer, that they believed was associated with the building they lived or worked in. When the World Health Organization studied the problem in the mid-1980s, they found that about 30 percent of buildings in the West were likely to make their occupants sick. It was in this report that the WHO coined the term “sick building syndrome.”
Probably the most common symptoms associated with SBS are irritations and infections of your eyes, ears, nose, and throat. The causes include mold, mildew, faulty HVAC systems, and the solvents and chemicals used in carpets, ceiling tiles, and cleaning products.
Most SBS symptoms can be stopped by addressing basic building maintenance issues. For example, water-stained ceiling tiles should be replaced, and roof tiles should be cleaned of mold and algae. Some plants, most notably plants in the Sansevieria genus, have a reputation for absorbing toxins and can therefore be used as low-cost air purifiers.
6. Air pollution is no longer something that comes just from cars.
While faulty HVAC systems are often to blame for sick building syndrome, even the tools within your office might be the cause of the building’s air pollution. Copy machines, for example, emit ozone — actual ozone — and breathing that ozone in can wreak havoc on your lungs. And it’s not just the ozone, it’s also the toner. The air inside office buildings is often filled with microscopic particles of printer toner. Breathing in that toner all day long is, at best, the equivalent of smoking a couple of cigarettes each day. In worst case scenarios, the lungs of office workers can develop siderosilicosis, the same disease that coal miners get.
Fortunately, copy machines have filters on them that are supposed to stop this problem. The question is: When’s the last time anyone in your office has changed that filter?
7. You need sunlight, not fluorescent lights.
Another part of your building that might be making you sick is right above your head — the fluorescent lights. Even as far back as the early 1980s, scientists have known that fluorescent lighting is associated with a higher risk of cancer. But cancer isn’t the only danger that comes from fluorescent lighting. Consider this list of problems associated with fluorescent light:
- Hyperactivity in children
- Anxiety disorders
- Hormonal disruption in females
- Sleep cycle disruption
- Increase in rates of breast cancer
8. When you’re light-starved, you’re more likely to get depressed.
Another serious mental and physical health side-effect of that lack of natural light is depression. About a third of office workers get up before the sun does and get home after the sun has already gone to bed, at least during the winter months. And once inside their office buildings, many of them are unlikely to see the sun for more than a few minutes of the day. A 2015 study published in Chronobiology International suggested that the lack of light significantly affected both melatonin and cortisol levels, hormones that help our bodies regulate stress and sleep. Low levels of these hormones are also associated with increased depression.
In turn, chronically depressed people tend to die at least five years younger than people who are not diagnosed as depressed. This correlation between depression and a shorter lifespan has long been suspected by mental health experts, but a 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs confirmed it.
Maybe It’s Time to Start Working From Home?
Between migrant toner particles and harsh fluorescent lighting, cubicles that lend themselves to stress and the cleaning product the janitors used to wax the floor the night before, your office job really might be destroying your physical and mental health. Maybe it’s time that you told your boss you want to work from home. And if that doesn’t fly, maybe it’s time to start looking for a new job. One with no fluorescent lights, a treadmill desk, and a set of toxin-absorbing houseplants.
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