updated on 17 October 2017
QuestionAre modern hi-tech offices bad for your health and happiness?
Studies are increasingly showing that, by using sophisticated equipment and techniques to control noise levels and lighting options in modern offices, employers can improve their employees' health, wellbeing and productivity. For example, Harvard studies published in November 2015 and June 2016 show clear benefits to the cognitive function of office workers where ventilation was improved and levels of CO2 and certain chemicals and volatile organic compounds were reduced. Similarly, the presence of plants in offices has been shown to help clean the air.
In a recent survey by Oxford Economics of over 1,200 senior employees, 53% of employees report that ambient noise (such as that in open-plan offices) reduces their work satisfaction and productivity. Employers are utilising techniques such as the broadcast of pink noise, the technology equivalent of the "muffliato" spell, which helps employees concentrate and reduces the need to resort to expensive sound baffles or personal headphones. Too quiet an environment can also be a problem as it stifles communication and creates unease and a lack of confidentiality.
Good-quality lighting is necessary for office work, but light is a stimulant and can reinforce and upset sleep patterns if people are exposed to the wrong colour or intensity at different times of the day. The colour (spectrum) and intensity of light are key. The body's circadian rhythms have evolved to react to different colour and intensity of light in the natural world, and if circadian rhythms are disrupted that is bad for health and bad for productivity.
A number of studies have been carried out in different environments (eg, schools, care homes, offices and factories). Results have shown, for example, that exposure to green light reduces levels of stress and mental fatigue, whereas blue light is a stimulant and is valuable for increasing alertness at the beginning of a working day, but can create sleep problems in workers who work long hours or shifts.
There is a concern that if employers manipulate light and noise levels in order to maximise productivity, this could in some circumstances have an adverse effect on the health of the individuals affected. There is particular sensitivity with people working irregular hours and shift workers where the employer's interest and the worker's interest may not be the same. This can be addressed by giving an element of control to individuals (eg, desk lamps with different colour and intensity settings) and inviting employee engagement with noise and lighting plans. Personal headphones are thought to be bad for communication and interaction between members of a team, but they can be popular with employees which means that discouraging their use can be sensitive.
Could employees bring a claim based on these issues? The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 include provisions about workplace ventilation, temperature, lighting, cleanliness, space and workstations. The related HSE Approved Code of Practice provides further guidance on these issues. There is a long history of cases about protecting employee health and safety, but we are not aware of any publicised employee claims in these particular areas to date. This may change, however, as our increasingly sophisticated awareness of these issues makes it more likely that a court would decide that it is reasonably foreseeable that actionable harm could arise from workplaces that do not take account of these factors.
Anthony Judge is a partner in the real estate team at Travers Smith LLP.