How To Heal A Sick Office

From replacing synthetic materials to letting the sun shine in, cleaning up a toxic workplace is easier than you think

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Ever since cubicles sprouted up in office buildings 40 years ago, inhabitants have been under assault. Chemicals in carpet glue, cleaning supplies, and printer cartridges can cause headaches, dizziness, lethargy, rashes, nausea, and respiratory irritation. This could be solved by pumping in lots of fresh air, but the windows in most modern office buildings are sealed shut. Then there's the space allocation: A typical office worker gets about 40 sq. ft.—less than a third as much as in the 1970s. Dozens of studies have documented the toll all this takes on body and mind. How are we ever going to blossom into globally networked, branded superstars while trapped in shrinking cubicle farms bathed in foul fumes?

The fix may be simpler than you think. Healing sick offices is generally a matter of replacing synthetic materials with natural alternatives, improving the flow of fresh air, and letting some natural light shine in. Healthy options—including clever techniques for pumping sunlight deep into a building's recesses—are proliferating. And while it's hard right now to know which microscopic evils may be lurking in your cubicle, the next decade will bring cheap consumer tests for airborne toxins and pathogens. Scientists are also working on newfangled materials to mix into coatings that can suck toxins out of the air.

But don't wait for these magic developments. Managers who start cleaning and brightening up their employees' workspaces right away can expect to be rewarded with lower costs, fewer incidents of illness and absenteeism, higher productivity, and the recruitment of better-qualified staff. A 2003 study of call centers found that workers with window views processed calls 6% to 12% faster, performed up to 25% better on mental acuity tests, and reported fewer health problems than their peers in conventionally lit spaces.

Businesses that do right by cubicle-dwellers may also find that they're doing good for the environment. That will bring benefits down the road. Letting in more natural light cuts a company's energy consumption, and that matters to earth-conscious job seekers. In a study by office goods supplier Corporate Express, 64% of workers—from the mail room to the executive suite—said their decision to work for a company is guided in part by its green practices.

Here are some of the things that sap health and morale in the workspace, and ways to make them better.

By Adam Aston

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