Is your office an extreme environment?

If asked to think of an extreme environment, you're probably more likely to think of a cold tundra, or the side of a mountain than, say, an air conditioned office. But as Professor Mike Tipton mentioned at the beginning of his fascinating webinar about cold water immersion a few weeks ago, the workplace can be an extremely challenging environment that requires careful planning and risk assessment just like any venture into adverse conditions outdoors.

"The office environment can be an extreme environment for a wide range of physical and psycho-social reasons," Mike commented. "Even in our open plan office we have conflicting requirements for air temperature for comfort  between men (21°C) and women (24°C), people sitting by windows feel too hot or cold depending on season and sunlight. There are also adverse reactions to air conditioning, sick building syndrome and the issues surrounding interpersonal relationships."

It's widely accepted that spending too much time in a poorly designed and ventilated building can make us ill, producing symptoms similar to that of a common cold, including:

  • dry or itchy skin or skin rash
  • dry or itchy eyes, nose or throat
  • headaches, lethargy, irritability, or poor concentration
  • stuffy or runny nose.

UK workers spend an average of 37 hours a week at work. If all of this time is spent in an unpleasant environment with poor lighting, ventilation, lack of space, insufficient equipment and unhealthy habits, performance and employee satisfaction are bound to be affected.

Here are some of the main ways an office can feel like an extreme environment:

Poor air quality

As many as 800,000 people across the globe die every year from poor air quality at work, according to one Lancet study. As we explore in our blog Clear the air at work to boost productivity, indoor air can be just as polluted as the air outside, if not more so - and the long-term effects can be devastating, from lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infection, to stroke and heart disease.

We recommend investing in a commercial air purifier like AeraMax® PRO, which constantly monitors air quality and filters out contaminants (including mold spores, germs, dust, volatile organic compounds, odours and allergens) as required.

Stressful interpersonal relationships

Environments become challenging and even extreme when the people inside them aren't getting along. If there are clashes of character or poorly managed teams working in an open plan office, this can create a tense environment that may exacerbate or even trigger mental health issues such as stress and anxiety.

Mental health issues like stress, depression and anxiety are the third most common reason people take sick leave from work.


Anyone who's worked in an open plan office probably has, at some point, had a small dispute over the thermostat. As Professor Mike Tipton has already pointed out, optimal temperatures differ from person to person. Being asked to focus in an environment that is uncomfortably hot or cold can be detrimental to both wellbeing and productivity.

Posture and DSE set-up

For DSE users the office can be a particularly risky place. Sitting at an unsuitable workstation for long periods of time can encourage users into poor postures that eventually lead to painful and debilitating musculoskeletal disorders like back pain and RSI - which cost the economy billions each year in sick leave and lost productivity.

It's important to have DSE users assessed. This can be achieved in three different ways:

Sedentary behaviour

Offices are generally sedentary places, with most people rooted to their desks for significant portions of the day. This, as we know from emerging research, can be deadly. In fact a recent study found that too much sitting is the cause of 11.6% of all annual deaths, costing the NHS around £700 million every year.

It's important that offices embrace active working as part of everyday life. Staff should be encouraged to take regular breaks to walk and stretch. Ideally, sit-stand desks or platforms should be installed and adjusted between sitting and standing positions at least every 40 minutes.

In his webinar, Mike said: "We become so good at controlling our environment that the day-to-day variations that we saw in the past - hunting, being in a cold environment at night and a warm environment during the day, have completely disappeared and as a consequence of that, we've got all of these conditions that have evolved. We've become sedentary, we've become obese, we've developed diabetes, we've got cardiovascular disease - that would be in part cured by being more active, and by challenging the system."

Mike Tipton is Professor of Human & Applied Physiology at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth. He is fascinated by effects of adverse environments on the human body and mind, and is considered a voice of authority on the subject. Mike and his team are currently preparing Olympic athletes for conditions in Tokyo next year.

Watch the webinar - Cold water immersion: kill or cure?

We’ve known for centuries that immersion in cold water can quickly result in death by drowning, cardiac problems or hypothermia. We have also believed that taking to the sea has health benefits. Recently open cold water swimming has become increasingly popular, with claims for health benefits ranging from improved immunity to a treatment for depression. Which is right? What should you do if you want to swim safely this summer or survive a cold water immersion? Find out in Mike's webinar, ready to watch below.