The cost of ignoring poor working conditions can be greater than the cure. Jeremy Myerson reports.
A survey commissioned by Office Furniture Systems, drawing together research from the UK, Germany, and the United States, has put the average cost of "environmentally induced productivity loss" at around £5,500 annually for each member of staff.
Employers have been told for some time that poor working conditions cost them money. Some have no doubt believed it. Others may have considered that the cost of putting it right might be hazardous to their financial health. What none knew, and possibly dared not ask, was how much this environmental neglect was costing?
Now they know. That £5,500 annually for each member of staff may be daunting but it seems realistic enough. Staff costs usually account for 80% of total operational costs and more than 360 million working days are lost in the UK each year through sickness. This amounts, for some companies, to between 7 and 10% of the wages bill.
Computer technology has made office-related injuries or illnesses harder to ignore. Tenosynovitis, for instance, is directly related to the use of terminals. It is a strain or inflammation of the tendons in the hand. Midland Bank found it stressful, too, recently when, as a result of a court settlement, it had to pay £45,000 to a Nottingham woman whose career had been cut short by it. She had been typing at a high desk, which exaggerates the strain, and was so crippled by her injury that she was unable to lift her two-year-old daughter.
"Teno", as it is known, is only one of a number of repetitive strain injuries caused by continual movements of limbs or prolonged static periods which overload particular muscle groups. British office staff claim to be the hardest working in Europe, with the longest hours. They are, given the incidence of headaches, backaches, tiredness and stress, also dubbed the unhealthiest.
But simply following the rules of modern design and ergonomics will not ensure that the employer has healthy minds and productive bodies. The building in which they work has also to be considered. Sick building syndrome, which produces flu-like symptoms of lethargy, stuffiness and headaches, is now officially recognised.
David Tong, an environmental psychologist with Building Use Studies, says: "Office design in the 1980s was all about achieving the prime corporate objective of efficiency. It was a limited concept and an over-emphasis on efficiency to the exclusion of other values led to much poor design."
Tong says that sick building syndrome is most likely to occur in highly controlled environments. "People will tolerate uncomfortable conditions such as high temperatures and stuffiness if they believe that they have some control over them. When that control is taken away, their morale becomes low and discomfort can develop into illness."
Architectural firm Jestico and Whiles designed an office scheme for the independent research organisation the Policy Studies Institute at Park Village East in Camden, London, which set new standards. It came out top in a Building Use Studies survey of office environments. The scheme arranges cellular office accommodation around a covered courtyard in the five-storey building. It was commended for the quality of its natural light and ventilation. Architect Tony Ingram, of Jestico and Whiles, says: "Local control of environment and a good aspect is essential to improve employee performance and the general quality of life in office spaces."
He admits that noise and pollution in cities, which sealed air-conditioning systems can shut out, cause problems for natural ventilation systems with open windows but looks to a time when atrium spaces, historically placed in the centre of office buildings, will move to the outside to act as a barrier between the street and the locally controlled office environment.