Work is making you sick. Though you suspect stress caused yesterday’s cold and last winter’s flu, a study from researchers at Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute may shed a bright enough light to help you identify the exact source of tension. Surprisingly, the root cause is not your temperamental boss or the overload of daily responsibilities. Oh, no... It’s more simple and much more insidious than you imagined: It’s the open-plan office layout causing you grief.

In fact, the team of researchers who came to this surprising conclusion found employees working in open-plan offices, women in particular, are at a “higher risk” for sick leave. Men seemed to respond most poorly to open-plan flex-offices, those where no individual workstations are assigned.

To better understand the relationship between office architecture and illness, the researchers analyzed data from the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health (that’s SLOSH, to you). First, the researchers identified 1,852 possible participants. Next, they analyzed short and long-term illnesses and total sick days taken by each employee. And finally, they assessed the seven types of office layout: the cell-office (an unshared room); shared-room office (two to three people per room); small open-plan office (four to 9 people sharing an open plan room); medium-sized open-plan office (10 to 24 people); large open-plan office (more than 24 people); flex-office (open layout, no individual workstations); and combi-office (more than one-fifth of the work is team-based).

What did they discover? People working in open-office plans were most at risk of becoming sick. The authors believe the cause of greater stress in open-plan offices is “the lower potential to exert personal control,” combined with “a lack of visual and acoustic privacy” along with an added dollop of “lack of autonomy, freedom, and so on.” In short, employees feel constantly exposed, consistently out of control, and this leads to that feeling at once familiar to most of us yet somewhat difficult to define.

What is stress?

The simplest way to describe stress is as a physical response to a demand or threat. To prepare you for either "fight or flight," your body releases a flood of nerve chemicals and hormones and your pulse quickens, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, and your brain uses more oxygen as it increases activity. Your body, then, aims full force at survival and in the short term, stress may boost your immune system.

Psychologists tend to categorize stress as falling in one of three categories:

  • Routine stress, arising from work, family and other daily responsibilities
  • Sudden change stress, resulting from a lost job, divorce, or illness
  • Traumatic stress, stemming from assault, a major accident, war, or a natural disaster

Generally, those who experience traumatic stress will find it most difficult to adjust, but for most people, the problem is chronic stress, the kind doled out on a daily basis at a low but persistent level. People who experience chronic stress are prone to more frequent and severe viral infections, such as the flu or common cold. Nervous system responses to stress may save your life in short bursts, but replayed again and again on a daily basis and they begin to suppress those autonomic and physiological functions unnecessary for immediate survival. For example, repeated stress can lower immunity, impede digestion, and harm both the excretory and reproductive systems. Anytime the source of stress is constant — or if your physical response continues long after the danger has passed — is considered unhealthy stress, which may lead to symptoms including headaches, sleeplessness, depression, anger, and irritability.

The Key

Too much stress for one person may be another person’s happy place. There’s no one opinion on what constitutes too little or too much and no one way to handle it best. Everyone, though, understands — simply by feeling it — when they’ve reached the level with enough stress to inspire but not too much to cause grief. Attitude may be central to how you respond. Watch this Ted Talk video, featuring Dr. Kelly McGonigal, who rather convincingly encourages her audience to “make stress your friend.”

Source: Danielsson CB, Chungkham HS, Wulff C, Westerlund H. Office design's impact on sick leave rates. Ergonomics. 2014.