How has the typical workplace changed in the past 25 years and what impact has this had on health and hygiene? Charlotte Boniface from Tork manufacturer SCA considers the effects that trends such as hot-desking, new technology and the diminishing lunch hour have had on today’s workforce
The typical workplace 25 years ago would be more or less unrecognisable today. Open-plan offices were rare and people would work in screened-off cubicles or behind closed doors in
The post would arrive just once or twice during the morning and this would be sorted, replied to and then filed away or “spiked” on a lethal metal pin that would nowadays be considered a safety hazard.
The fact that there were no computers meant that all letters and reports were either written by hand or dictated to secretaries who would type them up. External communications would be carried out via telephone or post, and when colleagues needed to communicate internally they would do so via written memo or simply pop into each other’s offices.
At around 1pm, employees would exit en masse and take to the local cafes, bars or restaurants. Here they would spend their Luncheon Vouchers which were a perk of office working and were often given out in employees’ pay packets. Others would head for the local pub where they would remain for an hour or more, indulging in a liquid lunch.
These days, however, open-plan offices are the norm. Instead of having their own private cubicles many office workers are expected to “hot-desk”, which means that they take the first desk available.
Increasing concerns about health and fitness has led to many employers installing desks that can be raised to allow staff to stand up while they work. Some desks even come with a treadmill to enable the operative to work and work out at the same time.
Meanwhile, the traditional lunch hour has all but disappeared and the pub lunch has become a thing of the past. A 2015 survey by Bupa revealed that two-thirds of workers now feel unable to take even a 20-minute lunch break while 31 per cent say they usually eat lunch at their desk.
Even the way in which people travel to work is changing. While the train, bus or car used to be the accepted method, an increasing number of people are hopping on their bikes instead. Sales and production of British-built bikes leapt almost 70 per cent between 2013 and 2014 according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. Meanwhile, bike hire schemes now exist in a number of key UK cities including London, Birmingham and Manchester.
There are logical reasons for many of these changes. Open-plan offices were first brought in to encourage greater debate among co-workers and to put an end to the culture where managers were remote figures hidden away behind closed doors.
In the early 1990s when every employee had their own landline telephone and in-tray for post, they needed a designated workspace. But since most people now have their own laptops and mobile phones they no longer need a specified space, making hot-desking a viable option.
Countless productive work hours must have been lost in the 1980s via the expense account lunch and the general culture of disappearing to the pub for an hour or two at a time. Liquid lunches have become much less acceptable today and many offices now offer a canteen facility or use a mobile lunch service. A quick bite to eat at one’s desk while surfing the web or social networking has become an acceptable lunch break for many.
So, what effect have these changes had upon health and hygiene in the workplace?
It seems clear that significant health gains can be made from using standing or treadmill desks and from cycling to work – particularly since the obesity crisis is deepening. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, obesity levels in the UK have trebled in the last 30 years and more than half the population could be obese by 2050.
Studies have shown that people who use standing desks burn up to 50 calories an hour more than those who sit down. Even more calories can be burned by using a treadmill desk – where you walk as you work – or a “DeskCycle” which is the latest work fitness phenomenon. Meanwhile, an hour’s daily commute by bike will burn around 650 calories while building the rider’s cardiovascular fitness.
This increasingly active workforce has led to a number of organisations installing showers as a staff facility. Many workers have come to view shower provision as the norm, and companies have had to factor into their costs the initial outlay of installation plus the ongoing costs of hygiene products such as body washes, soaps and shampoos.
At the same time, employees’ expectations of washroom standards have increased. Events such as the Loo of the Year Awards – set up in 1987 – have heightened awareness of washroom hygiene and helped to improve standards across the board. Washrooms in smart offices today are often considered to be something of a showcase and their role is to impress visitors and make staff feel appreciated. As a result, the soggy textile roller towels housed in utilitarian metal boxes of yesterday have been replaced with softer paper towels either on a roll or in single-sheet dispensing units. These are not necessarily wall-mounted, either: freestanding dispensers can help to create a smart appearance in upmarket workplaces.
Meanwhile luxury soaps housed in sleek dispensers – either wall-mounted or free-standing – have replaced the cracked soap bars that used to be supplied on each washroom sink. And basic grade toilet rolls have been supplanted by soft paper in smart systems that help to streamline the look of the washroom.
All these beneficial changes in the workplace are likely to lead to healthier outcomes. However, not all the changes to our working practices have been so positive. For example, the desk-bound lunch hour carries with it certain hygiene risks. Where staff handle a sandwich or wrap while continuing to work on their computers and phones they are potentially contaminating their food with germs spread via their appliances.
A study carried out by a hygiene company in 2012 revealed that the average computer mouse at work harboured three times as many bacteria as an office toilet seat. This was attributed to workers eating lunch at their desks while using their other hand to surf the web, a practice claimed to effectively turn workstations into breeding grounds for germs.
A second study carried out in 2014 by a Dr Charles Gerba from the University of Arizona revealed that the bacteria count at the office desk tends to rise steadily throughout the day, typically peaking after lunch.
Presumably, cleaning the telephones and typewriters at work used to be part of the job for yesterday’s office cleaner. But now that people own their own computers and mobile phones, it has become their personal responsibility to keep these clean.
However, according to a 2012 report by Which? around one in ten people never clean their computer keyboard and 20 per cent never clean their computer mouse. This could be a major cause of cross-contamination, particularly in an office where “hot-desking” is the norm or where roles sometimes entail shiftwork or a job share.
Standing desks, too, have associated risks. A 2005 Danish study of 10,000 working adults found that those who sat down on the job were 44 per cent less likely to receive hospital treatment for varicose veins.
And illnesses may spread more quickly in an open-plan office than in separate work cubicles. A 2013 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found that people who work in open-plan offices take 62 per cent more sick days than their counterparts in enclosed offices.
However, these few disadvantages of modern office life need to be considered in context. While standing desks might bring a risk of varicose veins, they also potentially lower the risks of diabetes and heart disease – both of which have been linked to prolonged periods sitting down.
Also, eating at one’s desks may well facilitate the spread of germs and consequently lead to ill-health. But so will the routine consumption of two or three pints a day down the pub.
Another risk to yesterday’s workforce lay in the fact that many offices had asbestos ceilings until the substance was banned in 1999. And let us not forget that the workplace smoking ban only came into effect in 2007. Today’s smokers are expected to step outside and smoke in shelters, whereas they used to simply have an ashtray on their desk and smoke in the office, whether their colleagues minded or not.
So it seems that today’s heightened concern with health, safety and hygiene has had a generally positive effect on the office and on hygiene provision. And if this situation continues, it will only spell good news for the workforce of tomorrow.