Does your office make you sick?

Jonathan Glancey prescribes fresh air, open spaces and light for the suffering staff in unhealthy workplaces

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) was acknowledged as a recognisable disease by the World Health Organisation in 1986. Up to 30 per cent of offices built or refurbished over the past 15 years in Britain may cause or aggravate the condition. SBS means absenteeism, low productivity, a generally unhappy white-collar workforce.

Remarkably, then, Jack Rostron, senior lecturer and research fellow in Construction at Liverpool John Moores University and sometime adviser to the WHO, still comes up against company doctors who dismiss SBS as a fantasy of neurotics and layabouts. Rostron's Sick Building Syndrome (E & F N Spon) is a compilation of the latest research into the subject and makes compelling reading for those who commission, design, build, manage and work in modern offices.

"Sick Building Syndrome has yet to be taken seriously by the machismo element of British management," says Rostron. "I'm not surprised by this; it's taken long enough for people to understand the link between sunbeds and skin cancer, the debilitating and even fatal effects of passive smoking, and the reality, as opposed to the myth, of ME. Effectively, it takes between 20 and 30 years for a disease of this sort to be recognised, largely because there are vested interests keen to prove they are fictions.

"SBS is an elusive phenomenon, vulnerable to being dismissed by the ignorant; yet for the thousands of office staff who put up with its effects on a daily basis - headaches, fatigue, impaired memory, visual disturbance, dizziness, respiratory problems, catarrhal deafness, tinnitus, skin conditions, among others - it can transform the humdrum business of going to work into something approaching torture.

"Employers are going to have to wake up to SBS, and pretty quickly, as significant sums have already been paid in litigation in the United States to SBS sufferers; we tend to ape the Americans in such matters, so British employers should expect court actions in the near future."

Who will be making claims? Those unlucky enough to work in the sort of offices in which they have little or no control over their surroundings. The classic "sick" building is an Eighties or Nineties developer's block, air-conditioned, "energy-efficient" (ie, sealed windows), with centrally controlled cooling, heating and ventilation systems. Matters are made worse in open-plan offices in which photocopiers and printers are not placed in a separate, thoroughly ventilated room (they give off toxic gases and particles); in which workers cannot control heating, lighting and airflow; in which they are highly supervised (both by management and by a variety of "security" devices); and in which soft furnishings (fitted carpets, chairs with fabric cushions and backrests) are the norm.

"It is symptomatic," says Rostron, "of the current hierarchical approach to control over working conditions that attempts by office workers to adjust or improve working conditions are described in management literature as 'tampering', as if by trying to humanise unnatural environments people were behaving deviously or even committing some sort of crime."

A prime suspect appears to be ineptly regulated and often dirty air-conditioning systems. They must be cleaned thoroughly and frequently to ensure safety. Even then, a centrally-controlled air-conditioning system is unable to cope with the different sensitivities of individuals. Rostron's research shows that the ambient temperature with which office workers feel most comfortable ranges from 64.4F to 78.8F.

"Traditionally," says Rostron, "when people felt too hot they opened a window, and when they felt cold they closed it. Work performance improves when small groups of people share small offices with windows that open. I don't want to sound Prince Charles-y with you, but traditional architecture is SBS-free."

This is a little unfair, he admits. It is not modern architecture as such that is a problem, but specific types of modern building. In much of Scandinavia and the Netherlands, employees are involved in the design of their offices from an early stage. First and foremost, they ask for windows that open, and personal control over heating, lighting and ventilation. This is possible because most office buildings in Scandinavia and the Netherlands are purpose-built for specific companies or government departments.

In Britain, most offices are built speculatively, then sold or leased to the end-user. This means the management, much less the unfortunates plonked down in front of computers in breathless open-plan offices, has little say in the design of the workplace. Rostron's book sums up: "The chances of the best architectural practice being combined with the most effective work organisational practices may require a more structured social and legal framework than that provided by the market alone."

Since the "oil crisis" of the early Seventies more and more office buildings have been designed to use as little energy as possible, and are thus often airtight. "Airtight" buildings clearly make the majority of those working inside them unhappy. But where macho management prevails, workers may feel it unwise to complain: fresh air is for wimps. The new breed of breathless modern building coincided with the reduction in employee power during the Eighties. Offices were symbols of corporate power.

If the modern office is increasingly at war with the human pysche and human well-being, what is to be done? The answer is either for us to work in old-fashioned buildings (lucky the ruddy-faced lawyers in their Georgian inns-of-courts, happy the typist rattling out documents in the shade of a courtyard in Havana, Cape Town or Seville), or to design buildings that offer those who work in them direct, individual control over heating, lighting and ventilation.

Most of us can remember days at school when we were allowed to work outside on hot, summer days: modern technology should make it easy for us to be able to work in courtyards, verandahs or balconies. If buildings were designed around courtyard gardens, we could then work in small offices, but meet together in the courtyard. A mix of open and glazed courtyards would address the question of Britain's climate: we would meet under glass in winter, under the sky in summer. There is no reason, other than its deeply conservative nature, to prevent the property market from building and letting such offices successfully. Office culture has littered our towns and cities with ugly buildings in the guise of vast and airless filing cabinets, and made us feel unwell into the bargainn

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore