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Health and Happiness

Desk-icide: Seven Ways Your Workplace Is Making You Sick

By Leigh Stringer

Sitting for long hours, indoors, staring at a computer and shoveling in bad food at work isn’t just a bad idea, it can be devastating to your health. I know, it seems almost counter-intuitive: Worker safety standards globally are at an all-time high. We have “nutrition-packed” food and, on the whole, work itself has gotten much easier than in generations past.

So why are our workplaces so toxic?

Here are seven reasons — and a few ways you can change your work habits to make health a priority this year.

1. Sitting Too Much

A study of occupations, led by Dr. Tim Church from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center, compared levels of physical activity for the entire American workforce over past five decades. It found that workers in 2010 burned fewer calories on average than workers in previous generations, purely based on the increased prevalence of more sedentary jobs. We are gaining weight because of it, but weight isn’t the only problem. Our sedentary behavior increases cardio-metabolic risk factors, which can lead to diabetes, heart disease and stroke. It is also causing an increase in the number of cases of deep vein thrombosis.

  • TIP Don’t sit in one position all day. Change your position often and move around frequently. Stand up every 30 minutes and walk around every hour and a half, even if it’s just for a few minutes.

2. Not Exercising Enough (Waiting for the Weekend)

Are you so caught up in work that you don’t make time for exercise during the workweek?  Studies show that if you wait until you have two consecutive days — the weekend — to get the recommended amount of exercise, you are not likely to meet the weekly target of 150 minutes of vigorous exercise. It is just too much exercise to fit into too brief a period of time. It also increases your chance of injury. Weekend warriors trying to fit in major home improvements and yard work during the weekend regularly injure themselves by pushing themselves too hard, too infrequently.

  • TIP You need a consistent healthy exercise plan that keeps you strong and full of energy all day and all week. Don’t wait until the weekend!

3. Bad Lighting

Compared to the outdoors, our workplaces are lit like caves. One day we’re going to all look back and realize that we have been working in the dark for the last 200 years, literally, and it is negatively impacting our sleep and well-being. A good portion of our global workforce spends roughly 90 percent of each day indoors, which essentially puts us in a state of “light deficiency” that disrupts our sleep cycle. Insufficient sleep is associated with several chronic diseases and conditions like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. We need more intense light to reset our circadian rhythm, which helps us sleep.

  • TIP Sleep experts recommend being outside as much as two hours a day, but even 30 to 60 minutes — say over a lunch break or during a walking meeting outdoors —will help.

4. Poor Air Quality

Headaches and sickness are common results of working indoors and exposure to abnormal levels of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and volatile organic compounds. Indoor settings often contain levels of pollutants that may be two to five times higher — and occasionally more than 100 times higher — than outdoor levels. Sources include combustion, building materials and furnishings, toxins used to clean surfaces, central heating and cooling systems, and humidification. Indoor air is also impacted by piles of paper and clutter that are lying around and collecting dust. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says current air quality codes in buildings are not the standard for healthy or optimal indoor air quality — they just provide the minimum level of ventilation that will allow you to walk into a space and not object to the odor. There is lots of room for improvement in most buildings.

  • TIP It often takes a major renovation to improve air quality substantially. You can, however, remove the piles of paper and materials that collect dust and dust mites that trigger sinus problems and asthma. Also, use “green” cleaning products that do not have toxins that contribute to poor indoor air quality.

5. Eating from a Vending Machine

Those vending machines are so darned convenient. What’s the big deal about eating from them? For the most part, the vending industry stocks mostly processed, sugary foods and drinks in their machines. In fact, only 2 percent of all vending sales are “healthy” snacks according to Vending machines are so prevalent, and so impactful to our diet, that the Food and Drug Administration announced that vending machines nationwide are required to display calorie information.

  • TIP How can you avoid the gravitational pull of a nice cold soda or chocolate bar? The best defense is a good offense. Bring your food from home. Prepare it when you are not hungry so that you are prepared when your stomach growls. And if you must use a vending machine, check the calorie count before you buy your snack.

6. Coming to Work When You’re Sick

When you come to work sick, you are likely spreading diseases to colleagues and clients. As tempting as it is to “power through,” the overall health risk is not worth it. Researchers from the University of Arizona placed a tracer virus on commonly touched objects such as a doorknob or tabletop in workplaces. At multiple time intervals, the researchers sampled a range of surfaces including light switches, countertops, sink tap handles and push buttons. They found that between 40 and 60 percent of the surfaces were contaminated within two to four hours.

  • TIP If you are sick, stay home for your sake and that of your colleagues. This may be a reason to make the case for a “work from home” policy.

7. Skipping Vacation

A recent Glassdoor survey found that only 51 percent of U.S. workers use their eligible paid vacation time. Worse, 61 percent of Americans work while they are on vacation, despite complaints from family members. You need it to refresh and revitalize to be effective — and your family will love you for it. John De Graaf, who made a documentary about overworked Americans called “Running Out of Time,” has found there is a high cost to not taking a vacation. “Women who don’t take regular vacations are anywhere from two to eight times more likely to suffer from depression, and have a 50 percent higher chance of heart disease,” he says. “For men, the risk of death from a heart attack goes up a third.”

  • TIP Plan your vacations, take them and enjoy yourself. Give yourself and your colleagues permission to unplug.

Leigh Stringer (@string0820) is Senior Workplace Expert for EYP Architecture & Engineering and is researching employee health and productivity in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health, the Center for Active Design, and other leading organizations. She is the author of “The Healthy Workplace.” Learn more at

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Categories: Attorney Work-Life Balance, Daily Dispatch, Lawyer Health, You At Work
Originally published January 24, 2017
Last updated July 17, 2018
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