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Office Work Is Killing You (or at least making you kinda sick): A Manifesto

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” —JOHN LE CARRÉ

It is an unfortunate consequence of unquestioning assumptions that millions of people across the world spend their working lives in conditions that are not ideal for their health and wellbeing. While there are many forms of work that have their own associated dangers, office work is particularly dangerous precisely because nobody thinks it’s dangerous. Danger brings to mind firefighters, electricians, and construction workers, not accountants, software developers, and architects. The former are obviously dangerous because death is easy to imagine in those roles. It’s less obvious in office work because death happens much slower through the erosion of your physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.

The premise for this manifesto lies in the assumption that we evolved — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually — to thrive under certain conditions. If you harken back to the initial environment where homo sapiens developed out on the African plain — lots of sunlight, small close-knit communities, an abundance fresh natural food, regular physical activity, etc — it’s drastically different from what most of us live in today. We’ve introduced radical changes to into our environment without giving ourselves time to sufficiently adapt to it. Adaptation takes millions of years, and we’re introducing significant technological and societal changes almost every year now. It’s hard to miss the maladaptation: obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, mass shootings, political hostility, drug addiction, environmental destruction, mid-life crises, suicide, working for the weekend, robbery, theft, arson, incels, recessions — the list is practically endless.

Office life is one of the changes we’ve added to our lives that we are maladapted to. It is a significant detour from the large open environment in which we have adapted to thrive, and as such is doing significant harm to our spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing…

  1. There is often little access to sunlight: Sunlight provides a multitude of benefits including improved mood, cancer protection, vitamin D production, and decreased risk of autoimmune issues.[1]
  2. There is often little access to fresh oxygen: Modern HVAC systems are great at keeping us at the right temperature, but awful for our health. Aside from the environmental side effects of powering these systems, HVAC systems also don’t do a very good job of circulating fresh oxygen into the buildings. As a result carbon dioxide builds up throughout the day and affects our brains ability to work efficiently and stay focused.[2] It’s also just generally bad for our health.[3]
  3. There is often little access to nature (read: plants): What are you more grateful for, a beautiful sunrise set against an oak tree or a beautiful white board set against drywall? Plants do a great job of reducing carbon dioxide and increasing oxygen (see point #2) and improving mood.[4]
  4. You’re often sitting for 8 hours a day: There’s nothing wrong with sitting, but it’s certainly not healthy for us to be doing it most of our day. It’s linked to a number of physical problems. [5] Modern office design doesn’t encourage much natural movement, in fact if you count all the executives shooshing you everytime you walk by their office its downright discouraged. And don’t forget all that sitting you’re doing in your commute too…
  5. You’re sitting in traffic for a significant portion of your life: It may be the only time you’re exposed to sunlight all day, but you can do better. Commutes, especially in the car, expose you to all sorts of air pollution, relatively unsafe (as a volunteer firefighter you can trust me on that), are often rage-inducing, cause you to lose out on precious time in your life, and aren’t very good for the environment unless you’re biking or walking to work.
  6. Your eyes are often glued to a computer screen 8 hours a day: When you’re outside the office it is much easier to step away from your desk, or peek out a window, or look at that expensive reproduction of Starry Night that you bought. You often don’t have that luxury in the office. Eye strain, vision problems, dry eyes — all of these things develop (they even have a special term for it now: Computer Vision Syndrome) when there’s not sufficient incentive to take your eyeballs off your screen. Especially when your promotion depends on you looking busy.
  7. You’re away from your loved ones for 1/3 of your life: What would you do if you were at the doctor’s office and they announced you had terminal brain cancer? Or what if you were putting in your 40 hours a week and you got a phone call that your daughter was in a terrible accident and didn’t survive? Would your perception of how you’re spending your time change? Death can happen to anyone at any moment (just ask this guy), so wouldn’t you rather spend your time with your family rather than in an office if you could?
  8. You may have to regularly interact with toxic people: Unless you have your own office or are particularly good at hide-and-seek, you can’t control who you interact with in the office. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to work with people like this. If you’re unlucky then your only relief is when you clock out of work for the day.
  9. There is often little access to safe and clean walking environments: Unless you have an office in the Berkshires you’re probably working in an urban or suburban area. How many trees do you see? Are there lots of cars driving around? Is there a designated pedestrian zone where you don’t have to run for your life across streets?
  10. You’re exposed to many more germs: During our times evolving into homo sapiens we lived in small bands of people. If one person caught a cold or virulent disease it was limited to that small group of people. Now that we’re housing tens and hundreds of people in offices, it’s much easier to catch the flu from Mr. Johnny Don’t Wash His Hands.
  11. There are no places to partake in healthy napping: Life happens. A lot. Your kids won’t sleep, you spent all night working on a project, you’re stressed out about the speech you’re going to give at your best friend’s wedding. Science has shown time and time again that a short nap can do wonders for your health [6], especially in our sleep deprived society.
  12. There are no places for relaxation or to burn off steam: All the issues I mentioned above can contribute to burn-out and other forms of mental and emotional degradation. So where do you go to release your stress from a long day at the office? No where, you just bottle it up until you get home where you wind down by staring at another screen and drink a few beers to forget your day.

Simply put the office is not a place where a human being can thrive in all aspects of wellbeing. They stifle our whole health by restricting the conditions in which we evolved to flourish, and we slowly deteriorate as a consequence.

While it’s the more important reason (because it’s the moral one), this isn’t just about increasing employee health and happiness. As I just mentioned above, there are significant business reasons for promoting an office environment that enables employees to reach their peak mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual fitness. The issues I listed are either directly or indirectly contributing to the “talent shortage”, “burn out”, and “employee engagement” problems that plague organizations of all sizes. You NEED to fix these issues if you want to solve these problems.

Make your office a place employees want to come to, not one they need to.

Otherwise let them work from home.


I understand the concept of workplace health and wellbeing may sound foreign to those of you who have worked their entire lives in cubicles. It may be hard for you to imagine how you can make your office environment better for your employees.

So this is my invitation to you to start a discussion on improvement. Feel free to reach out to me on my contact page if you’d like my suggestions. Or present this article to your managers or your employees and use it as a starting point to make your office better. Making the office healthier and more inviting doesn’t have to take a lot of money. But it will take some deep discussions and probably some hard work.


References:

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290997/

[2] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2220218/Why-office-sending-sleep.html

[3] https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2014-08/documents/base_3c2o2.pdf

[4] https://phys.org/news/2017-09-nature-workplace-employees-happier-healthier.html

[5] https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/expert-answers/sitting/faq-20058005

[6] https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-benefits-of-napping

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Ken View All →

I am a Father, Husband, Cowboy Philosopher, Volunteer Firefighter, and Professional Dilettante. I am nothing and I am everything. But when it comes to our relationship: I only wish you wonder and happiness.

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