Loneliness and isolation can have a real impact on mental health.
I used to quietly disdain open offices. How does anyone get anything done? I like my colleagues, they like each other, everyone is always talking. Plus, if any one of my officemates has a cough, the contagion appears to spread through the ranks at warp speed. I keep a lot of zinc tablets at my desk. My fears are backed up by science, and I’ve written about it before: The microbiome of an office—especially the kind without windows that open—can be a festering petri dish of everyone else’s insides.
On the other hand, open offices are sort of an antidote for another health hazard that comes from devoting nine or more (always more!) hours of your day to an office job: loneliness and isolation. In an open office, if someone is laughing at something on their desktop, it can be a distraction—but it can also be a social salve in the midst of another hour spent ricocheting down the tubes of the faceless internet. You can ask what they’re laughing at. You can get up and look. You can laugh at it too.
A study published recently in the British Medical Journal concurs. University of Arizona researchers found that open office seating correlated to less stress and more physical activity compared to those working in cubicles or private offices. The study was commissioned by the U.S. General Services Administration, which has a big stake in understanding the office-health nexus; the agency is responsible for more than 1 million federal employees and the 370 million square feet of office space in which they work.
The researchers monitored about 230 federal office workers across four federal office buildings. They kept track of their heart activity by way of sensors worn on their chests, monitored their physical movements using accelerometers, and prompted them via a smartphone app to take a survey documenting their stress levels once every hour over the course of three workdays.
They found that workers in open offices (where there are no partitions between desks, or the partitions are low enough to see over while seated) were over 30% more active while at the office than people working in private offices, on average. They were also over 20% more active than people who worked in cubicles. Further, open-office denizens rated their stress, on a scale of 1-7, with 7 representing the highest stress level, as significantly lower during the workday (9% lower on average). Plus, according to the heart-activity tracker, they experienced significantly less stress outside of the workday as well.
Anecdotally, my own experience backs this up; at my last job, everyone had a cubicle, and I could go a whole day without making eye contact with a soul. Sometimes, that’s just what I needed. But more often than not, I’d feel my job was made a little more unbearable by the vacuum of silence where I felt social contact ought to be.
So go ahead, embrace your open office. Just maybe use some hand sanitizer afterwards.