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Is Your Home Office Making You Sick?

Home office

Sick building syndrome is an elusive health condition – we have a limited understanding of it, other than its core symptoms and that it’s most commonly developed by poor office environments.

Workspaces that are dirty, unorganised, lacking in natural light and using outdated equipment can cause employees to feel intense symptoms of sickness, including nausea, headaches, eye strain, dry skin and others that have now been officially recognised by the NHS as a result of a poor working environment.

But with hybrid working becoming more common, what does sick building syndrome mean for home workers? How can we craft our own home office spaces to combat sick building syndrome? Can hybrid working cause our homes to make us sick?

Causes of sick building syndrome

Research into sick building syndrome has found that there are multiple inadequacies in office environments which can bring about symptoms.

Poor ventilation

Poor air quality is one of the most common causes of sick building syndrome, triggering allergies, headaches, poor concentration and fatigue. A study in 2021 by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found a link between poor office air quality and cognitive ability – meaning poor ventilation can harm both your health and productivity.

Poor lighting

Natural light in an office is the most sought-after feature by employees. It’s not just an aesthetic benefit, however – 84% of workers exposed to natural light have reported a reduction in eyestrain and headaches.

Irregular temperatures

The National Institute of Health indicates that sick building syndrome symptoms increase with the temperature when there is no humidity. A rising temperature can aggravate some specific symptoms, such as sensations of skin, eye and throat dryness.

Poor organisation

The NHS notes the link between poor organisation and cleanliness as another contributing factor. Messy desks and workspaces can allow for a material build-up of dust, triggering allergies, and a mental build-up of stress, triggering anxiety.

Preventing sick building syndrome in your home office

According to ONS Data, 44% of UK workers are now hybrid working – with Microsoft reporting that 56% of workers feel happier since making the transition away from office-based working.

The largely positive response to hybrid working suggests a large percentage of the workforce want to continue home working for the foreseeable future. This makes sick building prevention increasingly important – the last thing anyone wants is for their home to become a place of illness. Here are some suggestions from the experts.

Update your home office

A home office should look different to everyone, and should be tailored to your specific needs. If you suffer from various aches and strains, there are lots of tools available to reduce tension:

  • Neck pain – consider an elevated platform for your monitor. This will improve posture and reduce strain on the neck.
  • Back pain – ergonomic office chairs reduce strain on the back for long periods of sitting.
  • Wrist pain – wrist rests for keyboards reduce tension whilst typing.
  • Eye strain – update your monitor to one with a higher refresh rate (commonly listed as ‘Hz’). The higher the refresh rate, the more smoothly images will transition on your screen, helping to reduce headaches.

Top tip: turn on the ‘night light’ in your computer’s display settings to enable a blue light filter. This will lower eye strain and can improve your sleep pattern.

Invest in natural lighting

Fitting high-quality windows into your home office can boost your quality of life at work. A higher intake of natural light reduces headaches and eye strain, as well as making us more productive.

Kevin Brown, Managing Director and aluminium windows expert at The Heritage Window Company, states: “Thinner window frames and more natural light brings us closer to nature – allowing us to bring the outside into our workspace. Feeling closer to nature dramatically increases our mood, which in turn affects our well-being and productivity.”

Greater access to natural light can also treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which causes fatigue, depression and social withdrawal. SAD affects around two million people in the UK, making larger windows a key player in boosting serotonin levels throughout the darker months.

Choose an appropriate workspace

85% of those currently working from home want to continue hybrid working for the rest of their careers – so choosing an appropriate room for your home office is a must.

Whether you have lots of space or very little, it’s vital that you do not design an office in your bedroom. Your bedroom should only be associated with rest and sleep. The visual stimulant of a workspace in your bedroom can trigger stress and anxiety, harming your quality of sleep and blurring the lines between work and relaxation.

Instead, you should consider choosing a spare room with south-facing windows to design your office. Kevin explains, “South-facing windows are great for solar control. They let in light all day long, as well as being less heat and glare-prone than east and west-facing windows.”

“This is great for the immune system and for access to the energy-boosting properties of natural light – as well as keeping your home office at a regulated temperature in the winter.”

It’s also wise to invest in an air purifier for your chosen space. These vary in price and size depending on the size of your chosen room, but most decent purifiers start at around £50 for a small-medium sized room. Air purifiers help eliminate allergens from the air, as well as reducing dust build-up. This should help keep your air quality and workspace clean.

Finally, avoid placing your desk and monitor against a wall that doesn’t have windows directly behind it. Instead, leave space behind your monitor for natural light to fill. Dark space behind monitors can cause eye strain due to sharp contrast, in turn causing headaches with prolonged use.

Many push desks against walls because they are close to plug sockets, shortening the distance between devices and cables and therefore making your electrical equipment neater. Proper cable management should remedy this concern, with clever management tools like cable trays, covers, boxes, rackets and ties organising your cables into tucked-away bundles.

Top tip: stick an extension cable to the underside of your desk, alongside an under-desk management tray. This should stop your cables from hanging and keep wires in an easy-to-manage space – reducing the build-up of dust and removing a messy eyesore.

This piece was written by the Heritage Window Company.

PM Today Contributor
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Majed Alhajry