Working in an open plan office boosts workers’ health by increasing physical activity levels by up to a third, according to a new study.
Researchers say that open plan work spaces also relieves stress – possibly by fuelling more impromptu conversations and better communication between colleagues.
Having no partitions between desks could also increase awareness of colleagues – helping staff feel less cut-off, according to the findings..
The study of 231 US government employees found they clocked up 32 per cent more exercise than those in private offices – and 20 percent more than those in cubicles.
The most active had a 14 per cent reduction in stress compared to those who moved about less.
It’s the first time it’s been shown an open plan office “may be an unrecognised positive factor in promoting physical activity levels at work,” said the researchers.
Dr Esther Sternberg said: “Given the importance of physical activity to health the fact office workstation type may influence how much people move at work should not be overlooked in the health field.”
It’s no secret people in offices are the most sedentary workers and don’t always make up for this physical inactivity at home.
In the US alone workplace related ill health costs the economy US$225 billion a year, said the researchers.
Dr Sternberg said: “Across four different federal office buildings in the US workers in open bench seating exhibited higher levels of physical activity compared with those in cubicles and private offices.
“Higher physical activity at the office was in turn related to lower physiological stress outside the office as measured by heart rate variability. ”
A small sensor was fitted to the chests of the participants who also wore an accelerometer on their waistband that tracked their movements while at work.
Dr Sternberg, an expert in well-being and performance at Arizona University, said: “Nearly 50 million workers in the USA spend over one-fifth of their time in office settings.
“Sedentary patterns and inactivity are related to negative health outcomes, including fatigue, poor mood, as well as cardiovascular diseases and other chronic diseases which are in turn associated with increased rates of work exit.
“Importantly, lower physical activity levels at work have been linked to higher levels of perceived stress – a major public health risk associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and poor diet.”
The researchers who conducted the study, published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine, said most previous research looking at the link between office design and staff health have focused on survey responses.
None has looked at how the type of workstation might affect both physical activity and objective measures of stress.
So Dr Sternberg and colleagues recruited volunteers from four different sites working in three different types of office environment..
These included open plan offices with no or very low partitions between desks cubicles with high ‘walls’ that can’t be seen over while seated and private rooms.
The heart sensors and physical activity monitors captured the intensity of movement of any type of activity for three consecutive work days and two nights.
The participants 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.
These were significantly higher among older, overweight individuaals. Interestingly activity levels were lower among women than men.
Dr Sternberg said: “Workers tend to rate private offices as more desirable than other office workstation types, but there may be other consequences when compared with open bench seating arrangements.
“For instance, valuable, impromptu conversations may be an unintended benefit to this design strategy, as well as improved communication and an increased awareness of others.
“It is possible that the open nature of a space leads to increased physical activity by encouraging interaction and mobility, including movement to spaces designed for unplanned meetings and phone calls, when available.
“Individuals in open bench seating may also be more aware of others and more dependent on shared services – for example meeting rooms, printing and filing areas, social spaces – than those in private offices.”
The findings are observational so cannot demonstrate cause-and-effect. But Dr Sternberg said they underline the need for more research into how office design can increase physical activity.
She added: “Doing so will help to better understand how the behaviour and health of millions of people are affected by the built environment in which they spend so much of their lives.
“This study can inform designers’ thinking about how office design elements might encourage physical activity and potentially even reduce levels of stress – thus facilitating a healthier lifestyle.”