That colleague of yours who’s always joking that she’s “allergic” to work? There may be something in it. Known in medical circles as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), it’s a condition in which a building makes you sick in some way after you’ve been in it for a prolonged period of time – think allergic reactions, asthma attacks and body pains. The office is usually a prime spot for SBS because we spend so much time there.

Worst part? The most unlikely things in your workplace can be responsible for these ailments – yes, even your desk chair. We take a look at key culprits.


How it’s killing you: Dust collecting on the carpet and desktop could give you a blocked nose, sneezing fits and skin rash. It can also irritate your eyes and accumulate on your computer screen, decreasing its sharpness, leading to eye fatigue. In the long run, you might get sinus congestion, allergic reactions and asthma attacks. Watch out if your office contains a lot of textiles, cotton-based clothing and books – these collect dust easily.

Do this: Wet vacuum the carpet around your desk at least once a week as this picks up dust more effectively than dry vacuuming. You can suggest this to your human resources (HR) department or keep a small hand-held wet vacuum cleaner in your office. As a rule of thumb, if your carpet is more than 10 years old, ask for it to be replaced. Don’t forget to clean your desktop and hidden areas behind shelves.



How it’s killing you: If there’s sunlight hitting your computer screen, the glare will force your eyes to work harder to focus, causing them to be dry and tired. Those working late into the night under bright lights may also experience the effects of over-illumination – when your body is exposed to bright lights, it suppresses the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, disrupting your normal sleep cycle. Over time, this could trigger migraines, fatigue, stress and anxiety.

Do this: Every 45 minutes, turn away from your screen to look at something far away or close your eyes for a minute or two. Also, if you’re squinting while using your computer, it’s a sign that the screen is too bright.


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How it’s killing you: Ozone leaking out from printers and fax machines, and carcinogens from cleaning products like dishwashing detergents and all-purpose cleaners, are toxic. Inhaling too much during a short period of time can cause giddiness, set off headaches and decrease your concentration. In the long run, these toxic chemicals can damage your central nervous system.

Do this: Do not linger in the photocopying room any longer than you need to, and leave the doors or windows open for ventilation. If the cleaning lady is giving the pantry or toilet a scrub, avoid the area for the next 10 to 15 minutes, or get out as soon as you are done.



How it’s killing you: Are your office windows sealed? Watch out. When a room isn’t well ventilated, it plays havoc with the air around you – it’ll be freezing if you’re right under the aircon duct, stuffy and humid if you’re seated in the corner. This can lead to dry throats, coughs, itchy eyes and skin rash – things that’ll sap your motivation and energy levels at work. Plus, bad air can cause shortness of breath.

Do this: Place a small fan at your desk to get the air circulating, or open your windows every now and then to let fresh air in.


How it’s killing you: There should only be one to two inches of space between the back of your knees and the edge of your seat – anything more and the chair’s too big for you. You’ll tend to move forward and sit at the edge of an oversized chair, which means your back won’t be supported by the backrest. You’re also more likely to slouch, which can trigger pains and stiffness in your wrists, elbows and neck. Over time, you could develop chronic neck problems, shoulder and lower-back pain, and muscle aches.

Do this: Check that your chair isn’t too big and that your back is leaning against the backrest. When typing, your elbows should remain close to your body and your desk should be supporting at least half of your forearms.



How it’s killing you: If you have to stretch to reach items like your keyboard and phone, you might strain your shoulders. Repeated strain can cause neck ache, elbow and shoulder pains, and symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, which include numbness and weakness of the fingers.

Do this: Place items that you frequently use, such as your phone, notepad and stationery, close to you so they can be easily reached. Items that you only need every now and then, like reference files, books and stationery refills, can be placed slightly further away.


If you notice your colleagues falling sick one after the other with the same symptoms, tell your HR department, says the associate director at recruitment consultancy firm Robert Walters. Let them know what may be the culprit: for instance, the air conditioning is too cold one week and too warm the next, or the lighting is glaring. HR will usually take note as they track the amount of sick leave taken by employees, she says.

But if they don’t do anything, tell your manager or boss. Sure way to get their attention? Highlight how the problem is affecting everyone’s performance and productivity.


This story was originally published in the June 2013 issue of Her World.

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