August 21, 2018

Are open plan offices better for employee health and well-being?

Are open plan offices better for employee health and well-being?

Workers in open plan offices undertake more physical activity and are less stressed than colleagues who sit in walled cubicles and private offices, according to a new study.  

The observational study, reported in the journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, tracked 231 US government employees using chest-worn heart and physical activity monitors for three consecutive workdays and two nights. During work hours participants also answered hourly surveys via smartphone that included questions about their current mood.

The researchers found that employees who work in open plan offices undertake 32% more physical activity than their colleagues in private offices and 20% more than those who sit in walled cubicles.

Higher physical activity at the office was in turn related to lower physiological stress outside the office—those who were more active had 14% lower stress levels outside the office compared to those who were more sedentary.

“[P]hysical activity is considered a key determinant of individual health,” notes Michael Lechner in his IZA World of Labor article. “Engaging in sports and exercise can boost an individual’s productivity by improving health and fostering cognitive and non-cognitive skills, including self-discipline, stress management, and team work,” factors that also influence individual success in the labor market.

The study also found that stress levels were highest in older workers and those with higher BMI measurements. Another observation, worthy of further investigation, is that women exhibited both lower levels of physical activity at the office and higher levels of stress outside the office compared with men. 

Esther Sternberg, co-author of the report and a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, told the BBC: “We all know we should be increasing our activity but no matter how we try to encourage people to engage in healthy behaviour, it doesn't work for long.” She believes that “changing office design to encourage healthy behaviour is a passive way of getting people to be more active.”

Find more articles on health, well-being, and happiness in the labor market.