How dirty workplaces and filthy offices affect you

Cropped shot of a businesswoman working in her office while suffering from allergies
Encouraging employees to stay at home when they’re unwell can help curb the spread of illness. Photo: Getty

The majority of offices are filthy. The typical office desk is host to more than 10 million bacteria, which is 400 times more germs than what’s found on a toilet seat.

Whether it’s piles of washing up in the communal kitchen, spilt coffee, or long forgotten lunches in the fridge, the workplace can be a pretty grim place to be. High bacterial counts have been found on lift buttons, phones, computer keyboards, and mice — nothing is safe.

Bring in co-workers who refuse to take sick days and come into work with viruses, and it’s no wonder we fall ill so often.

So how do our dirty workplaces impact our health and work?

When we’re working in an unpleasant environment, research suggests it can impact our productivity and motivation. In 2015, the firm Contract Cleaning asked more than 1,500 workers in 300 offices whether their workplace was clean or not — and how this affected them.

In offices where employees thought cleanliness was lacking, nearly three-quarters (72%) said their surroundings made them less productive. Nearly half (46%) said they took longer lunch breaks and spent less time in the office, and a quarter said they took sick leave because they found their surroundings depressing.

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In cleaner workplaces — those with regular cleaners, good kitchen facilities, and clean toilets — 65% said they looked forward to coming to the office and half said they worked harder as a result of having a better organised office.

Another study, published in 2012, analysed responses from more than 43,000 people from 351 office buildings. The results showed cleanliness was linked to job satisfaction.

Our environment can have a big impact on our wellbeing, too — and considering British workers spend an average of 42 hours a week at work, improving our surroundings is important.

We know that offices that lack natural light can contribute to low mood and poor health. A 2016 study found that air quality and lighting at work can have significant effects on brain function, with poor lighting contributing to stress. It makes sense, therefore, that a dirty or messy office can adversely affect us too.

Close up of business documents stack on desk , report papers stack
Nobody likes to work surrounded by mess. Photo: Getty

Picking our way past piles of paper, empty cups, and discarded office chairs can make us feel like we’re completing an obstacle course. Nobody wants to sit in an office that smells like gone-off food. So for employers, it’s worth investing in cleaning services or ensuring employees keep the workplace clean.

If you work in an office, the chances are you will have — at some point — picked up a stomach bug or virus that has made you unwell. This is because office spaces mean we work closely together, sharing and touching contaminated items, allowing germs to spread quickly from one person to the next — like bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli and viruses like the flu virus.

Viruses can also survive for hours on some surfaces, which allows them to be transmitted between co-workers. People who work in open-plan spaces have a 62% higher incidence of sickness absence than those in private or shared cellular offices, according to a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, & Health.

Even our phones, something most of us touch every few minutes, are dirty. A University of Arizona study found phones are the most contaminated items in our offices, with more than 25,000 organisms per surface.

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When combined with rising rates of presenteeism — people coming into work when they are unwell due to fears of losing a job or earning less — illnesses spread even quicker. According to a 2018 survey by CIPD and Simply Health, 86% of over 1,000 respondents said they had observed presenteeism in their organisation over the last 12 months, compared with 72% in 2016 and just 26% in 2010.

If dirty workplaces are affecting us so badly, what should we do about it? Encouraging employees to stay at home when they’re unwell can help curb the spread of illness. Studies have shown most employees don’t work productively when they’re ill anyway.

It’s also important to encourage cleanliness and invest in anti-bacterial cleaning products that can be kept on desks — such as sprays — for employees to use when they need. Wipe down phones, keyboards, and other hotbeds for germs frequently and if you’re eating at your desk, move your keyboard away from crumbs or other remnants of food.

If you share mugs in your office, make sure they are properly cleaned, either in a dishwasher or with washing up liquid. A quick rinse won’t remove germs from a colleague full of cold. Finally, make sure papers, books, and other items are tidied away when they’re not in use — nobody likes to work surrounded by mess.