The typical office desk is home to over 10 million bacteria, 400 times more than a toilet seat. Other studies have revealed people don’t wash their hands, and surfaces from taps to elevator buttons are “officially dirty”.
Beyond the health concerns, this has an impact on our psyche. Humans have an inbuilt disgust response to dirty environments. A clean workplace has also been shown to reduce sick days and increase productivity.
People attending work while sick adds to the spread of disease and costs the Australian economy about A$34.1 billion each year through lost productivity. The cost of absenteeism in Australia is estimated at A$7 billion a year.
We are not as clean as we might think
This is especially of concern given the rise of open-plan and shared-desk workplaces. Workers in open-plan spaces have a 62% higher incidence of sickness absence than those in private or shared cellular offices.
I once worked with a colleague who refused to touch any surface in a public toilet and would use gloves or paper towels to avoid doing so. Another colleague was so troubled by the toilet roll dispenser that he kept his own supply of toilet paper in his office.
If workplaces are already dirty, it makes sense that no-one empties the dishwasher. We feel that it is not our responsibility as we follow the norm and behave in ways we normally wouldn’t.
The impact of a messy workplace
One study of 43,021 respondents from 351 office buildings found that cleanliness was be correlated with employee satisfaction. In two laboratory and field experiments, offices that were seen to be in proper order and had a pleasing appearance had positive outcomes for trust in the organisation and for learning.
In another study on the effects of a controlled increase in cleaning quality, researchers found that a cleaner office resulted in a 12.5% decrease in sick days and reported increases in productivity.
What can we do about it?
Not all communicable infections have vaccines, so overcoming the problem of dirty workspaces requires a bit of ingenuity.
Hand hygiene has been shown to be one of the most effective means of reducing the transmission of germs. In year-long random controlled trials, workplace hygiene programs that include education and the use of hand sanitisers reduced hygiene-related healthcare claims by over 20%.
Many organisations have implemented sanitation stations in open-plan and hot-desking environments to encourage employees to wipe down the desk, computer equipment and phone when they have finished using them for the day. However, a study has shown that less than half of employees use them.
Some research has suggested that creating ownership can lead to increased responsibility and to people doing the right thing. This might include team ownership of different aspects of the work environment such as schedules for cleaning the kitchen.
While employees should be encouraged to stay home while sick, and the use of hygiene programs can have a positive impact, the uptake of these initiatives continues to prove challenging for employers.
- ^ 10 million bacteria (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ don’t wash their hands (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ officially dirty (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ disgust response (rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org)
- ^ shown (www.irbnet.de)
- ^ costs (www.sipmel.it)
- ^ A$7 (www.usc.edu.au)
- ^ conducting a 13-month study (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ 62% (www.jstor.org)
- ^ less then half (smallbusiness.co.uk)
- ^ How clean is your desk? The unwelcome reality of office hygiene (theconversation.com)
- ^ research (psycnet.apa.org)
- ^ famous study (my.apa.org)
- ^ One study (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ laboratory and field experiments (journals.aom.org)
- ^ How employers can design workplaces to promote wellness (theconversation.com)
- ^ survive (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ study (www.irbnet.de)
- ^ random controlled trials (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ study (smallbusiness.co.uk)
- ^ A new study should be the final nail for open-plan offices (theconversation.com)
- ^ research (www.emeraldinsight.com)
- ^ research (psychology.iresearchnet.com)
Authors: Libby Sander, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Bond Business School, Bond University