Stress gets the blame for sick offices

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The Independent Online
"Sick building syndrome" is caused by the work pressures placed on today's office staff as well as by germs and indoor pollution, the British Association was told yesterday.

A study of several large government and private sector office buildings in Glasgow where there have been widespread complaints of illness was made by Dr Christopher Baldry, of the University of Strathclyde.

He painted a bleak portrait of a large bank's "call centre" in the city where mortgage applications are dealt with. Trade unions are not recognised, sickness rates are well above the average and staff turnover rates are high. "People leave in droves" he said.

European Union guidelines controlling how long people could spend at their screens were ignored by managers at that office and in others he studied. Tea breaks were history; staff were expected to stay at their desks for seven or eight hours a day.

Added to this, new technology and work practices allowed managers to oversee - and oppress - office staff in ways which could not have been conceived of 20 years ago. They could monitor how quickly staff processed work, look at whatever an employee had on his computer screen, listen in to telephone calls made to customers and they could tell instantly how quickly sales were being made.

"It used to be that you could not really monitor office work," said Dr Baldry. "Not any more - the staff know they are being watched."

But Dr Baldry said he was certain that sick buildings were also caused by bad architecture and poor management. The classic sick office has sealed windows, air conditioning, synthetic furnishings and an open plan layout in which people sit far from windows and rely on artificial light.

The air is too dry, too cold or too warm; there have been cases of staff bringing in portable fan heaters in mid-summer to try to defeat the air conditioning and keep warm. Cynical managers have even been known to install dummy heating controls, giving the illusion that the temperature can be controlled.

In one large government office in Glasgow simply unsealing the windows so that staff could open them helped produce a dramatic fall in sicknesses.

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