Perhaps it’s the fluorescent lighting, the back-stabbing co-worker, or the incessant, unrealistic deadlines. Whatever the stressor, working in a toxic office can negatively impact your health.
Muscular pain, disturbed sleep and excess use of alcohol or painkillers are all early warning signs, says Melbourne-based clinical psychologist Adam Carrozza, who has consulted on senior leadership issues.

“One of the most significant areas people need to determine for themselves is resilience,” he says. “Type A personalities expect and want to thrive in a competitive environment but, on the sabotage spectrum, when they fall they fall hard. There is always a tipping point at which no one can reasonably be expected to function.”

Simply put, the crushing outcome of a range of detrimental workplace factors, from poor air quality or building design, to a management culture determined to grow profits at employee expense, can be physical and emotional breakdown.
Some companies are simply more fun places to work than others, at least environmentally.
At Google, Sydney, gaming facilities and themed relaxation rooms, as well as a library for quiet contemplation, take the edge off the stress of competing in a digital world. At iselect in Melbourne, a two lane running track around the core to facilitate walking meetings and sun hammocks complete with ocean views make the hard sell a less taxing experience.
For those of us who work in less titillating corporate surrounds, however, the responsibility for maintaining wellness – and a sense of fun – falls more heavily on our own shoulders.
It’s true that your employer has a legal obligation to ensure essential equipment will not damage your health. That means document holders, wrist and foot rests should be supplied; desks must accommodate a range of heights to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injury; and chairs should provide support for your back, according to the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission.
However, Matthew Beechey, director of R&R Corporate Health, says while ergonomic office design can improve musculoskeletal outcomes, old habits die hard. “You can still slouch when sitting,” he says.
Considering you’ll sit in an office chair for two, maybe three decades, it may be worth investing in something deluxe. You can build your own, physiotherapist-designed chair at Gregory Commercial Furniture, a service used by many of Australia’s top 100 companies.
Eyestrain, headaches and neck pain can be reduced by anti-glare filters on your digital devices, says Beechey – try
Setting an alarm on your smart phone to take small breaks every 20 to 30 minutes, and having a regular remedial massage, will help keep your spine in good shape while building stronger core muscles is also crucial, says personal trainer, Pilates and yoga teacher Josie Cain. A bonus: increased energy reserves.
Beechey adds that, whether it’s downsizing or pressure to escalate board profits that’s at fault, eating lunch at the desk is an increasingly common but wellness-zapping practice among managers.
“People in the corporate world are overwhelmed and there is a perceived or real pressure to keep up,” he says. “They feel the need to push on through breaks, but the brain needs a rest. “
A short walk, outdoors, may be beneficial in more ways than one.
The CSIRO estimates that the cost of poor indoor air quality in Australia may be as high as $12 billion a year with pollutants such as formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (benzene and trichloroethylene or TCE), airborne biological pollutants, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, pesticides and disinfectants (phenols) and radon all potentially affecting health.
Dizziness, nausea, eye, nose and throat discomfort, itchy skin, fatigue and an inability to concentrate can signal your office has an air quality problem.
Lidia Morawska, Director of the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health at Queensland University of Technology, a collaborating centre of the World Health Organization, says adequate ventilation is key to health and performance.
A high quality air-conditioning system removes carbon dioxide and other pollutants, but must be well-maintained.
However, if a building is situated on a traffic-clogged road, the same system may bring in pollution from the outside, she warns.
“There is no one prescription (for air quality),” says Professor Morawska, although companies who are fastidious about employee health can have air quality tested.
More than banks of computers – “the jury is still out on the effects of electromagnetic radiation” – printers are the main concern in offices because some emit volatile organic compounds from the toner, she adds.
The NOHSC suggests that high use photocopiers are isolated, while Professor Morawska suggests printers are at least placed under a vent.
NASA researchers have found that certain plants, including peace lilies and rubber plants, absorb pollutants and provide the fresh air and humidity that makes us healthier.
Other physical office hazards, according to global expert Initial Hygiene, include phones, that carry thousands of germs per centimetre and desks, that house 400 times more bacteria than the typical toilet seat. The solution is old-fashioned but savvy: antibacterial wipes, used lavishly.
Of course office politics can be more damaging than any one environmental stressor.
As French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people” and nowhere may this be more true than in a dog-eat-dog corporate environment.
In Toxic People: Decontaminating Difficult People At Work Without Using Weapons Or Duct Tape, Marsha Petrie Sue suggests the negative health consequences of absorbing toxic people’s venom range from eczema and increased anxiety to insomnia and high blood pressure.
Some companies provide in-house counselling services, although you may wish to keep your issues to yourself and use a private, professional service.
Alternatively, a punching bag mounted in your office can help diffuse anger and frustration as well as build fitness and provide respite from desk-sitting. Try Harvey Norman’s Ringmaster Boxing Fitness Kit.

Helen Hawkes

Helen Hawkes is a journalist who writes compelling print and digital content across business and finance, health and lifestyle, real estate and interiors. Her content clients have ranged from American Express and the University of NSW to Maserati and 9Honey. She is fluent in cross-platform storytelling, brand tone of voice, content strategy and stakeholder management.