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No partitions between desks may be 'healthier' for office workers

This layout is linked to higher levels of physical activity while at work, and lower levels of stress outside the office, a new study suggests.

Image: Iakov Filimonov via Shutterstock

AN OPEN PLAN DESIGN, with no partitions between desks, may be healthier than other types of workstation arrangements for office workers, new research suggests.

This layout is linked to higher levels of physical activity while at work, and lower levels of stress outside the office, the findings published online in Occupational and Environmental Medicine indicate.

It’s no secret that office workers are more sedentary than other types of workers, and that they don’t always make up for this physical inactivity at home, the researchers said.

The researchers noted that most previous studies looking at the impact of the workplace environment on employees’ health have focused on survey responses and none have looked at how the type of workstation might affect both physical activity and objective measures of stress.

For the study, the researchers recruited 231 US government workers from four different sites, working in three different types of environment – open bench configuration with no or very low partitions between desks, cubicles with high walled partitions that can’t be seen over while seated, and private walled offices.

Participants wore heart sensors and physical activity monitors, which captured the intensity of movements of any type of activity, for three consecutive work days and two nights.

They also answered questions every hour on their smartphones during working hours to gauge their current mood.

After they had completed their stint, they filled in a survey to assess their overall stress levels.

Stress levels

Analysis of the data showed that workers in open plan offices with open bench configurations clocked up more physical activity than either workers in cubicles (20% more) or in private offices (32% more).

Stress levels were found to be significantly higher among older, heavier office workers, while activity levels were lower among women than men.

Higher levels of office stress were significantly associated with higher levels of stress outside the office.

However, those who were more physically active experienced lower levels (14%) of stress outside the office than those who were less active.

The researchers did note that this was an observational study, and as such, they couldn’t establish cause.

There may be other workplace design features that affect physical activity, including circulation patterns, availability of informal meeting space, and accessibility to stairwells, they said.

They wrote that this is the first study to show that an open bench configuration “may be an unrecognised positive factor in promoting physical activity levels at work”.

“Given the importance of physical activity to health, the fact that office workstation type may influence how much people move at work should not be overlooked in the health field,” they said.

Office workers often tend to rate private offices or cubicles more highly for their greater privacy, but an open bench configuration may have other benefits, including more impromptu conversations, better communication, and increased awareness of co-workers, they added.

“The results of this study are an important step towards establishing best practices and guidelines for office design and operations,” they conclude.

“There are ongoing and accelerating trends towards reducing dedicated individual workspace in offices in order to save rental and other overhead costs, and to reduce environmental impacts of underutilised space.”

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