Monday, January 19, 2009

Open-plan offices making you sick

That firms with open plan offices might differ in other ways than their offices seems not to have been considered

The evidence is overwhelming - working in an open plan office is bad for your health. Australian scientists have reviewed the global pool of research into the effect of modern office design, concluding the switch to open-plan has led to lower productivity and higher worker stress. "The evidence we found was absolutely shocking,'' said researcher Dr Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. "In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover. "The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.''

Dr Oommen said there was also a higher chance of workplace conflict caused by "sitting so close to someone that each time their phone rings you can get irritated''. "I think most of us, including myself, can relate to that,'' he said.

Working in an open-plan office could contribute to higher blood pressure, Dr Oommen said, and an increased risk of illnesses as bugs such as the influenza virus were more swiftly passed around. "Based on these findings, I think employers around the country need to rethink the open-plan environment in their offices,'' he said. "The research found that the traditional design was better - small, private closed offices. "The problem is that employers are always looking for ways to cut costs, and using open-plan designs can save 20 per cent on construction.''

Dr Oommen's study has been published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management.


Addictive foods?

I have bacon and eggs for breakfast nearly every morning. Am I addicted to it? This is just another attempt to medicalize a social problem

Cornflakes, biscuits and soft drinks may be as addictive as cigarettes and are in danger of advertising bans, strict regulations, high taxes and health warning labels, scientists say. These and other heavily processed foods with a high glycaemic index (GI) trigger an addictive sugar rush that can be hard to resist and leads to obesity.

New Zealand scientists reviewed evidence showing compulsive food consumption has similar underlying brain mechanisms that result in drug dependence, and argue that heavily processed carbohydrates have the most potential to cause addiction. Lead researcher Simon Thornley, from Auckland Regional Public Health Service, said foods with a high GI caused blood-sugar levels to spike suddenly, and this sugar rush stimulates the same areas of the brain associated with addiction to nicotine and other drugs. Low-GI foods produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and a feeling of contentment and satiety.He said the theory, if proven, had important public health implications.

Nicole Wigan from Maroubra said she makes sure her two children eat a balanced diet, but her son, Jack, 4, "could eat junk food all day long if I let him".

Having a school holiday treat of fish and chips at La Perouse beach yesterday, Ms Wigan said while she's heard of the glycaemic index, she doesn't do the weekly grocery shop based on high- or low-GI foods. "I don't pay attention to it, but generally we eat quite a balanced diet and if they've eaten well, they can have a treat at night," she said.

This is the first time GI has been implicated as the predictor of the addictive potential of foods. Dr Thornley said evidence showed people who binged on high-carb foods experienced symptoms of addiction - loss of control, a compulsion to keep taking higher amounts to get the same buzz - and suffered withdrawal if they went cold turkey. And like those addicted to cocaine and alcohol, people with a higher body mass index had fewer brain pleasure receptors.

Carb addicts may benefit from getting their hit of blood sugar more slowly by eating low-GI foods or even using a food version of the nicotine patch. "Just as slow release forms of nicotine help smokers recover from addiction, low GI foods may reduce cravings in obese or overweight populations," Dr Thornley and his colleagues at the University of Auckland wrote in the journal Medical Hypotheses.

GI pioneer Jennie Brand-Miller, from the University of Sydney, welcomed the study but said the assertion high-GI foods have a shorter time to peak concentration in the bloodstream is incorrect. All foods take about 30 minutes to peak, but high-GI foods peak and fall at substantially greater levels, Professor Brand-Miller said. "It's a novel idea that draws on strong evidence that glucose consumption influences levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain."

An editorial in The American Journal of Psychiatry last year proposed some forms of obesity are driven by an excessive motivation for food and should be classified as a mental disorder, or "food addiction" in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, wrote that the symptoms of obesity - compulsive consumption of food and inability to restrain from eating - are remarkably parallel to those described for drug dependence.

The professor of population health at Deakin University, Boyd Swinburn, said while there were commonalities between drug-seeking behaviour and the extreme measures a starving person will go to for food, labelling obesity an addiction was "far-fetched".


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