Five Office Health Hazards

Most of us spend our working hours in environments we can't completely control, whether we're facing a cash register, a client, or a computer screen. And it's important to know that the little and not-so-little annoyances—from dry eyes to rushed lunches—can affect your health. If the prospect of Monday morning and another work day inspires a despairing moan, consider remedies other than quitting. Small adjustments can make a surprising difference in the quality of your day. Here are five of the biggest office health challenges and the best ways to beat them:

1. Sights for Sore Eyes. According to a study reported in the Survey of Ophthalmology, computer users risk tired, red eyes, burning and blurred or double vision. People blink up to 60 percent less often while looking at the screen, causing dry-eye symptoms. The cornea is also sensitive to office hazards like dry air, airborne paper dust and ventilation fans. To protect yourself, look away from the screen and at a distant object at least every 30 minutes. Use eye drops if you feel strain. And if you wear reading glasses and work at a computer more than an hour a day,  researchers recommend a pair of glasses especially designed for the distance you normally sit from the screen.

2. A Pain in the Back. Sitting too long in a badly designed office chair can provoke both acute and chronic back pain. So with that in mind, remember your ergonomics. Adjust the height of your chair and keyboard and the distance from the computer screen. (Here are tips for making your workspace more ergonomic.) Psychology also plays a big role in chronic pain, according to a World Health Organization report by rheumatologist George Ehrlich. Back pain can be a sign that you're bored or unhappy at work. If you've adjusted your workstation, try getting more exercise outside work to improve your mood says Ehrlich.

3. Noises Off. A Cornell study found that even low-level noise in open-style offices results in more stress. After randomly assigning 40 experienced clerical workers to either a quiet, or a mildly noisy open-style office for three hours, the researchers measured and compared the amount of epinephrine, a stress hormone, in their urine. The workers in the noisier office were both more stressed and less likely to make ergonomic adjustments to their workstation. "One possible reason is that under stress, people focus in on their main task," says Cornell's Gary Evans, a leading expert on environmental stress. Dilbert-style cubicles don't necessarily do the trick: sound travels through the gaps and the walls create a false sense of privacy. Explain to cubicle neighbors that it's important for all of you to keep your voices (and any noisemaking devices) low.  People who don't need to be on the phone constantly may find noise-canceling headphones to be a big help. There are also a number of products that aim to block conversational noise around cubicles. There hasn't been much scientific evidence to back up their claims, but they may be worth checking out if office chatter is making you crazy.

4. Desk-side Noshing. Eating out every day for lunch—or at your desk while distracted by e-mail and phone calls--tends to make you overeat and choose the wrong food. Try to brown-bag it and take enough time out so you can actually chew your food. And most importantly, stay far away from the desk with the candy dish or birthday cake. Studies show that the closer your proximity to those office snacks, the more likely you are to gain weight. (For more tips on avoiding bad eating environments, check out "By the Numbers: The Seven Worst Ways to Eat.")

5. Bad Vibes. Research published in the Journal of Management Studies reports that Americans are especially likely to be bullied at work, yet only one in three of the victims identified themselves as targets. So what exactly counts as bullying? "Persistent intimidating, malicious, insulting or exclusionary behavior." says author Pamela Lutgen-Sandvik, of the University of New Mexico. Not only victims, but observers were more likely to report feeling stressed and dissatisfied with their jobs. Talking back to a bully typically aggravates the behavior, says Lutgen-Sandvik. A better strategy is to alert superiors, and if you can join forces with coworkers and complain as a group, you're twice as likely to succeed, Lutgen-Sandvik found. Of course, sometimes it's the boss administering the doses of workplace humiliation--small stresses that take a cumulative toll. If the bad moments on the job outnumber the good, the best health choice may be to start polishing your resume.

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