In my line of work, I see a trend in new office environment designs. Many new office spaces are shifting from a cubicle based system to an open space type of arrangement. I have also often been asked questions whether this new move towards an open space arrangement is beneficial, or if it actually introduces more risk for staff.

This posting reviews an article by Bodin Danielson, et al. (2014) who investigated if there is a possible relationship between the physical office environment and sick leave rates and whether office type affects employees’ sickness absence.  Absenteeism is a complex issue, and is related to job characteristics including high work demands, poor job control, and monotonous work.
Areas of interest in open plan offices are:

  • Human well-being: with respect to personal control of the surrounding environment. This is considered fundamental for human well-being
  • Stress via distraction. Distraction is considered a major stressor when perceived as ‘irrelevant sound’, with negative effects on both health outcomes and performance

The researchers used a sample from 2010 and 2012 waves of the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health (SLOSH). SLOSH is a nationally representative longitudinal cohort study of work environment and health covering different aspects of the general life situation and working life, including organizational aspects as well as the physical work environment with questions about office types.

The study was based on the seven office types that have been identified in contemporary office designE7CC86AEBC. These are:

  1. Cell-office
  2. Shared-room office
  3. Small open-plan office
  4. Medium-sized open-plan office
  5. Large open-plan office
  6. Flex-office
  7. Combi-office

Researchers found a significant relationship between short leave durations and office type for both men and women.  In the overall sample, there was an elevated risk found with employees in all 3 traditional open-plan office in comparison with cell-offices. Interestingly, the highest significant risk for short duration sick leave was found with employees in small and large open-plan offices, followed by medium-sized open plan offices.

The findings indicated that traditional open-plan offices are less optimal for employee health. This could be due to a higher rate of infection, exposure to environmental stressors, and group dynamics. Although non-significant, it is also notable for better outcomes on sickness leave durations in cell-office and combi-offices. This could indicate that high personal control and low risks for infection (for cell-office), and strong social coherence and peer control (people are missed when absent, work effort is noticeable, and are less easily replaceable) for combi-offices that may decrease the risk of absenteeism.

Some gender differences were found. The association between short sick leave durations and office type was stronger with women than with men working in the three traditional open-plan offices. This was also true for long sick leave durations among women in large open-plan offices. This may be due to a higher sensitivity to physical stimuli or greater importance for social support at work for women. For men, there is instead a stronger association between flex-office and risk of short sick leave durations and total sick days. Flex-offices stood out as a less good office type from a sick leave perspective than other office types independently of gender.

The research indicates that there is a higher prevalence of short sick leave durations for employees in open-plan offices, especially with women.

In Practice:

To lower the risks of office sick leave for employees, offices should be designed with higher personal control and a lower degree of environmental stressors or more collaboration in teams with colleagues.


Bodin Danielson, C., Singh Chungkham, H., Wulff, C. & Westerland, H. (2014).  Office design’s impact on sick leave rates. Ergonomics, 57(2), 139-147.