How Death by Cubicle Works

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When the aliens come down from outer space to colonize Earth and imprison all humans, they might be surprised and confused by how humans live their lives. Day after day, we wake up at ungodly hours and put ourselves through long and dangerous commutes, all to sit in a death trap for upwards of eight or nine hours. And what is this death trap? Why, it's the innocuous-looking cubicle, home to about 40 million working North Americans [source: Newsham]. And all of them face death each and every day to do their jobs.

Maybe you think death is too strong of a word; after all, the typical cubicle dweller doesn't do anything dangerous on a regular basis. It's not as if desk jockeys are out fighting fires, defusing bombs or crab fishing in Alaska. But these workers do face health risks above and beyond staff meetings so boring they'd make anyone want to swallow staples one by one. Your health can be largely dependent on your environmental comfort, which is determined by whether your immediate space meets basic physical, functional and psychological needs [source: Vischer]. As we'll see in this article, the cubicle fails on all three counts.


The modern-day cubicle was denounced by the man who actually created it, Robert Propst. Cubicles were unveiled in 1968 as a way to increase office productivity. Propst believed that a workspace with plenty of shelving and increased surface area would give office drones more room to work; partitions could be used to pin up projects and to provide the privacy lacking in earlier open offices [source: Schlosser]. The original plan also called for adjustable desk levels so that workers could spend some time standing up.

But economics got in the way of Propst's dream. As office space costs climbed, cubicles were used to maximize real estate and inexpensively cram a lot of people into one area. Instead of being the flexible units that Propst envisioned, cubicles became rows of cages that slow productivity and even threaten our health. At work, where we're so often encouraged to think outside the box, we're trapped in one.

Read on to find out just how your cubicle might be killing you, and if there's any hope at all in this deadly epidemic. On the next page, we'll consider why you might want to snag a few toilet liners for your desk.


Office Germs Are Your Co-workers, Too

Who knows where this thing has been.
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To do your best at work, you need to be healthy, so the first step in achieving environmental comfort is meeting needs related to health and safety. The typical cubicle may afford you a modicum of privacy, but you're never really alone in there. Instead, you're surrounded by thousands and thousands of germs. Custodial staff members are usually responsible for cleaning common areas, but not an individual's desk. So while you may be distrustful of a communal bathroom, your desk probably contains about 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat [source: Market Wire].

Restaurants with surfaces that contain more than 700 bacteria per square inch are considered unsanitary, but the typical office worker's hands come in contact with 10 million bacteria a day [source: Barrientos]. If you make a telephone call, about 25,127 microbes per square inch are listening (in addition to the person in the next cubicle), making the phone the germiest item on your desk [source: Matthews]. Your keyboard and computer mouse also harbor bacteria, and so does your desktop. In a study that swiped the desks of different workers, teachers ranked as the germiest profession, while the cubicle-dwelling accountant came in second. The accountant's desk racked up 6,030 bacteria per square inch [source: Barrientos].


You're probably not thinking about these statistics as you take your afternoon snack; about 20 percent of workers never clean their desk before eating, while 75 percent of workers wipe down "only occasionally" [source: Clorox]. And yet the typical desktop is about 100 times germier than the average kitchen table [source: Market Wire]. Plus, if that snack came from a stash in your desk drawer, then you're cultivating a garden for mold.

Where do all these bacteria come from? One culprit is the worker in the next cube, the one that you hear hacking up a lung all day. In a survey of almost 1,000 workers, more than one-third reported to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases that they felt they should go to work even when sick [source: Mason]. These sick workers are engaging in presenteeism, or making it to work when they should be home in bed. Think of all the things that sick people might touch in the course of the day: the microwave as they're warming up chicken soup, the fax machine when they're sending prescriptions to the pharmacy and the bathroom door as they head in to vomit. Because viruses can survive on surfaces for days, it's no wonder that the cold or flu makes it way from cubicle to cubicle.

But sometimes it may be the office itself that's making you sick. If you've ever felt allergic to work, it may not be in your head. Occupational asthma, or experiencing asthmatic symptoms such as itchy eyes and coughing while at work, makes up 10 percent of asthma cases in the United States and is estimated to be responsible for 24.5 million sick days annually [source: Belkin]. Some of the same symptoms are attributed to sick building syndrome, in which a moldy or poorly ventilated office causes headaches, fatigue and nausea, to name a few symptoms.

Yet a study investigating sick building syndrome found that while there was little correlation between the physical building and the symptoms, there was a strong correlation between job stress and the conditions [source: Boyles]. When your cubicle isn't meeting your basic environmental comfort needs and you get sick, your stress level rises. The researchers also found that when people had more control over their workspace, fewer symptoms were reported [source: Boyles].

Stress can also aggravate the wear and tear we put on our bodies just by sitting all day. Find out how your posture can ruin your health on the next page.


Workplace Comfort: You're Doing It Wrong

Waking up with back pain? It could be work-related.
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You're crouched over your computer, hoping that the people who walk behind your cubicle all day won't notice that you're indulging in a brief break of online celebrity gossip. In doing so, the second aspect of environmental comfort, functional comfort, is compromised. Functional comfort is the measure of ergonomic support you have to do your job, from the lighting above to the chair below.

Cubicles and the furniture within them often come as "one size fits all," when in fact they need to support people of all shapes and sizes. Sitting improperly in a cubicle raises the risk of musculoskeletal conditions that ravage the body, including pain in the back, neck, shoulders, wrists and legs. Take stock of your workspace and see how many of these conditions are met:


  • Your computer screen is 18 to 24 inches (46 to 61 cm) from your eyes, with the top of the screen at eye level.
  • The keyboard is directly in front of you, allowing your arms to maintain a 90-degree angle. Wrists should be straight out and supported when typing.
  • The top of the desk is 2 inches (5 cm) above your elbows.
  • The chair provides lower-back support and is adjustable. It should be set at a height so that feet are flat on the floor and knees are at a 90-degree angle; when the knees are too high, the thighs don't support enough weight, leading to stress on the lower back. When knees are too low, it affects circulation to the lower legs.

[source: Kimball]

Even if you have perfect desk posture, you need to take frequent breaks to rest your eyes and move your body; sitting in one position too long causes fatigue, making it more difficult to sit correctly as the day wears on. But today's workers simply don't take enough breaks, and cubicles may not afford the desired privacy for desk yoga or basic stretching. The only exercise a worker might get may be crawling through the maze of cubicles for the occasional restroom break. Not only does this sedentary work style increase the likelihood of back, neck, shoulder and arm pain, it also contributes to our culture of obesity, particularly when lunch is fast food takeout or a junk food feast cobbled together from vending machines.

Now wait, you may be thinking -- germs and poor ergonomics can affect anyone with a desk, not necessarily just cubicle dwellers. Turn the page to find out how the cubicle itself can exacerbate the damage done by a germy desk and an uncomfortable chair.


Distractions at Work Are More Than Just Annoying -- They're Deadly

Maybe this could have been avoided if people took personal calls outside.
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So maybe you think you can withstand the occasional flu or backache, and these conditions certainly don't make your cubicle deadly. But these factors can be worsened by the third feature of environmental comfort, psychological comfort. People feel psychological comfort when they perceive control and ownership over their space and a general feeling of belonging [source: Vischer]. This is why some people decorate their cubicles, but control over this type of workspace is fairly limited, as anyone who's ever had to listen to a co-worker clip fingernails or chat for hours on the phone can attest.

The walls of a cubicle may be intended to fence a person off, but distractions are all around. Cell phones with exotic ringtones are constantly playing. Your co-workers treat the nearby copier as their personal pick-up bar and that creepy guy from the sales department keeps stopping by your cube to chat about his weekend.


These may seem like minor annoyances that distract you from your work, but because you're exposed to them day after soul-crushing day, they add up. The stress of not being able to concentrate on your work affects your body; your body reacts to stress by arousing the nervous system and releasing hormones. Your pulse quickens, you start breathing harder and your muscles tense. When your body is frequently exposed to factors that activate this stress response, the stress creates allostatic load. This increased stress has been linked to issues including high blood pressure, heart attack, chronic fatigue, musculoskeletal disorders, diabetes, depression and substance abuse [sources: McEwan and Lasley, De Croon et al., Vobejda].

Allostatic load can also contribute to a weakened immune system, which makes workers more susceptible to the cold we discussed in an earlier section. But this habitual stress can also weaken your brain. The hippocampus plays a role in turning off the stress response, but when the stress is constant, it can affect the hippocampus's ability in other functions, including learning and memory.

Current work in the field of neurogenesis, or the process by which the brain creates new cells, bears this out. A study of the marmoset's environment showed that when these primates are in a stressful environment, their brain cells retreat, and they stop producing new cells. Marmosets in enriched environments have enriched brains to match; these animals are showing increased and denser brain cells [source: Lehrer]. If you've ever left work feeling particularly brain-dead, it may be the combination of those bland particleboard walls and being forced to overhear inane conversations.

Another problem is seeing those cubicle walls too often. Whether you're working long hours to get ahead or just trying to keep up in a troubled economy, the lack of a work-life balance could prove deadly. In Japan, where long hours and unpaid overtime are regular practice, death by overwork, or karoshi in Japanese, is legally recognized as an official cause of death. In 2001, karoshi was deemed to be responsible for 143 deaths [source: JICOSH]. At least one doctor has posited that karoshi is due not only to long hours, but also to the stress created by years of working with the sense of feeling trapped and powerless [source: Tubbs]. If you've spent years in a cramped cubicle, that description may ring a few bells.

Even if you don't work yourself to death, stress takes its toll on your body. Stressed workers accrue health care costs that are 46 percent higher than those of a non-stressed employee [source: Schwartz]. So is the sight of your cubicle doomed to be the last thing you see before you head to the light? Find out if cubicle death can be prevented on the next page.


Preventing Cubicle Death

Could a different office setup slow the Grim Reaper's advance?
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It's fair to say that most workers assigned a cubicle would prefer an office, but that's just not financially feasible for most companies. Additionally, it may not create the environment best suited for people to do their jobs. While an office cuts down on distractions, it also isolates workers socially and hampers the ability to share work-related information.

According to a study completed by the Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program, companies should consider tearing down the cubicle walls and doing away with closed-door offices. The office layout that may help workers get the job done is an open bullpen setup, in which several desks are clustered together in a semi-enclosed area.


This may seem counterintuitive; after all, wouldn't the noise factor be even worse? Maybe not. According to a separate study, occupants in open-office environments, without partitioned walls, were more satisfied with the noise levels and their own privacy of speech than cubicle dwellers [source: Jensen et al.]. It may be that removing cubicle walls destroys the illusion of privacy that some must feel they have when they yap away for hours to their dog sitter. When workers can see that those around them are concentrating, they may be less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors.

Workers would also be able to use visual cues to judge the best time to interrupt someone with a question. Instead of popping your head into a cube to see if it's a good time to talk, you'd know when your co-worker might have a minute to chat, so conversations could be better timed. Because tasks often rely upon the talents of an entire team, having this ability to share information quickly and efficiently could improve productivity.

In addition to facilitating work-related collaboration, an open-office environment may also aid in social interaction between workers. A network of social support at work is one key to reducing workplace stress and resulting depression. Simple things such as eating lunch away from your cubicle and with your co-workers can have a big impact both on your mental state and for your career. A study by Harvard and the Stanford Research Institute posits that 85 percent of promoted employees advance because of their people skills, as opposed to technical skills [source: Smith].

Now, adapting a new kind of work environment won't do anything about a germy desk or bad posture. You're on your own for those. But when your time at work is more productive and you're not wasting time dealing with stress, then you might have an extra five minutes to wipe down your desk and adjust your chair. And when you're more satisfied with your environment, you'll be more satisfied with your job. Cubicle death won't be a looming threat.

Just be careful on the commute home. That road rage can be a real killer.

If you're still alive, you might like the stories on the next page.



Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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