Fact Sheet: Sickness in Open Workplaces

What do we say about sickness in open workplaces?

  • We are concerned that there will be higher rates of sickness within the federal public service.  We are particularly concerned that lowering of barriers between cubicles, reducing space per worker and no private offices cause this increase.

What does the research say about sickness and open workplaces?

  • There is a relationship between the number of people in an office and the rate of absence due to sickness.  A 2011 study, found that when compared to single person offices 2 person offices resulted in 50% more sick days, offices with 3-6 persons resulted in 36% more sick days and open plan offices with more than 6 occupants resulted in 62% more sick days.[1]
  • Research has found a higher prevalence of short sick leave absences in traditional open-plan offices.  The authors indicate that there are lower odds of sick leave in office types with high personal control and a lower degree of environmental stressors, or with more collaboration in teams with colleagues.[2]
  • Research suggests that workplace design literature has not focused enough on mental health and more specifically on specific mental illnesses.  However, possible interventions have been highlighted in a 2011 article.[3]

What does your employer say about sickness?

  • The GC Workplace Design Guide outlines health and wellness as an important principle in the design of GC Workspaces. In doing so it emphasizes activity and movement.
    • However, elements of GC Workplace such as the lack of walls and barriers are likely to result in increased sickness in the workplace.
    • The Guide makes no reference to reducing sickness or managing illnesses at work, especially mental health. 


  • Design Specifications
    • Set a fair and reasonable sick leave policy.  Sick leave is regulated by the collective agreement, but management could introduce more reasonableness into how it chooses to manage employees’ illnesses and absences.
      • Management should facilitate more working from home, in appropriate circumstances.
      • Flexible hour arrangements should be used within the collective agreement and at management’s discretion.
      • Improving the workplace should be a priority with initiatives such as ergonomic improvements, personal contributions to workplace design.
    • Interventions which should be considered in respect of mental health include:
      • Use architectural features to define group boundaries, limit the size of work groups within boundaries, and provide adequate privacy mechanisms. 
      • Utilize a range of work station sizes to improve satisfaction levels.
      • In the case of ADHD, research has recommended that individuals with these conditions be assigned individual enclosed offices.[4]
  • Monitoring
    • Sick leave usage should be monitored within a workplace as a whole and compared to past trends to see if sickness rates are increasing.
    • A robust monitoring program for employee physical and mental health should be developed to ensure individual situations are identified but also so that the employer is able to identify problems and develop appropriate solutions.  

[1] Jan H Pejtersen, et al., “Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices – a national cross sectional questionnaire survey,” (2011) 37(5) Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health 376–382.

[2] Holendro Singh Chungkham, “Office design's impact on sick leave rates,” (2014) 57(2) Ergonomics 139-147.

[3] Jennifer Veitch “Workplace Design Contributions to Mental Health and Well Being” online: Longwoods <https://www.longwoods.com/content/22409>.

[4] Ramsay, J.R., “Nonmedication Treatments for Adult ADHD: Evaluating Impact on Daily Functioning and Well-BeingWashington, DC: American Psychological Association. As cited IBID.