Is Your Cubicle the Source of Your Work Stress?

Office cubicles were introduced in 1968 by Robert Propst and were intended to increase office productivity. The idea was solid at the time, but as real estate costs grew, cubicle sizes decreased and are now a way of maximizing floor space by getting as many people into as little an area as possible. While this appears to be a logical solution to space problems, the solution has created other problems. Specifically, decreases in productivity and creativity.

Cubicles contribute to ill health such as back and eye strain (it turns out that the “one size fits all” model does not fit all). In addition, the constant hum of activity around cubicles inhibits concentration and affects physical wellbeing. The physical and psychological strains force your body to release hormones that increase your pulse and breathing and tense your muscles.

While we can all manage stress sometimes (and we know that stress is important in some situations), the relentless stress on your body not only makes you ill (e.g., potential for high blood pressure, heart attack, chronic fatigue, diabetes, depression, etc.), but it also decreases your productivity. Employees with health issues coupled with low productivity are exactly the opposite of what employers want.

In addition to physical and psychological stress and decreased productivity, cubicle workers also have a decreased ability to be creative. Constant stress impacts the hippocampus’s ability to learn new things and also prevents new memory from forming. And if the ability to learn new things and form new memory is impacted, creativity also shuts down. The question then is whether cubicles are sending companies backward rather than moving them forward?

Do you sometimes feel as if you’re trapped and powerless? Apparently, this is not just a state of mind. It really is the accumulated years of stress of working in cubicles. And it  can have detrimental consequences. In fact, the Japan National Center for Occupational Safety and Health acknowledges “Karoshi” (i.e., “overwork”) as a workplace cause of accidents or death. It reported 690 such cases in 2001, of which 143 were deaths. At the time of this writing, more recent statistics were not available.

If this isn’t enough to ring alarm bells for employers, in 2011 Stanford Medicine reported that those in high-stress jobs visited general practitioners 26 percent more and specialists 27 percent more compared with those in low-stress jobs. In addition, they found that in 2009, 70 percent of American employees considered their workplace a significant source of stress and 51 percent reported that job stress reduces their productivity.

Given these reports on stressful work environments, how can companies improve their workers’ productivity and creativity and, in turn, their bottom line? A study by Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program suggests that eliminating cubicles and closed door offices and going to an open bull-pen type of configuration offers the best results. While this is counterintuitive, the benefit is that all those working in the open area are more conscious of the effect of their actions on others and tend to be more focused on their work and more respectful of their neighbours. Noise levels are reduced and people skills are improved.

At the end of the day, the question is whether companies are willing to do away with their investments in cubicles. From my perspective and drawing on my own experience from having worked in cubicles, I suggest that the smart thing to do is to treat those investments as losses. The bigger long-term gain will be increased productivity and creativity from workers, not to mention a healthier, happier workforce. Improved teamwork will also be a nice side effect.