Have you got a tense, nervous headache? What about a sore throat or a blocked up nose? If you work in an office, it may take more than an aspirin and a cough sweet to make you feel better. Dryness of the skin, eyes, nose, and throat; tiredness, headaches, allergies and asthma are just some of the symptoms that have come to be associated with working in modern offices. There’s even a name for it – Sick Building Syndrome. This may sound like just another buzz word, but belief in its existence is rapidly gaining ground.
Still not convinced? After you have survived the commute into work and slumped into your chair, look around you and take in your surroundings. If your office is anything like mine there will be banks of desks with a pile of papers stacked precariously on each one; computer screens and fluorescent lighting will flicker; telephones and photcopier machines will screech and hum incessantly.
Now take a deep breath; I dare you. If you are still alive and you’re happy, congratulations, you’re one of the lucky ones – everyday, hundreds of office workers are affected by their working conditions.
A building can be diagnosed sick where staff complain of being ill “more commonly than might be reasonably expected”. Everything from ozone from photocopying machines, and dodgy air-conditioning, to low humidity and dust from carpets can take their toll on workers, making us feel tired and worn out, even affecting our breathing. So, it’s official – offices can seriously damage your health.
Companies all over the country are losing millions of pounds through absenteeism. But workers have faced an uphill struggle trying to convince managers, who often treat complaints as merely whingeing, even though the syndrome has been recognised by major international players like the World Health Organisation.
A cardinal feature of sick building syndrome is that symptoms become worse after the person has been in the building for a few hours, particularly after the weekend or a break away from the workplace, and improve after leaving the building and at weekends. This goes a long way to explaining that Friday feeling.
But can buildings really be sick or is it just an excuse for people to skive off work?
In the 50s and 60s, property developers were only interested in short term benefits and threw up low quality office buildings, squeezing as much space into them as they could to increase the lettable area. It’s the building equivalent of the pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap philosphy, but the legacy of this is that we have been left with user-unfriendly offices which are considered too expensive to alter.
Karen left her job as a secretary for local government a month ago. “I remember if one person came in with a cold or flu, everyone in the office came down with it within a week,” she says. “People complained of sore throats and headaches. And we all felt very tired and lethargic by the end of the day. People actually used to fall asleep at their desks. I’m sure it was because of the air conditioning but we couldn’t have any windows open because of the noise outside. I have so much more energy now I’ve left.”
In fact, it has been shown that people who work in government buildings suffer from the syndrome more than those who work in the private sector.
But no one is immune. Building sickness seems to be on the increase and there’s a good reason why: in the West, people now spend 90 per cent of their time indoors. Those that work longer hours are especially vulnerable. Women, especially those at professional and managerial level, work even longer. It’s not surprising, then, that women tend to feel sick at work more than men.
Your position at work will also affect how well you feel. A recent study showed that people with clerical and secretarial jobs experienced 50 per cent more symptoms than those with managerial posts and 30 per cent more than “professionals”.
Having control over your working environment plays an important part. If you feel chained to your desk, exposed to the same conditions for most of the day, you are more likely to feel ill, unlike managers who are usually more mobile and free to come and go as they please.
Like that other ailment of our time, ME, sick building syndrome is difficult to pin down. A building may have abnormal levels of sickness among its occupants, but who or what is to blame?
Puuting it all down to a building seems the easy way out, especially considering that bosses in their photocopier-free executive offices, appear not suffer from the syndrome. Bulldozing the building may not be the answer, then, but commandeering your boss’ desk might be.