After an Allergy UK survey reveals nearly six million Britons could be allergic to their office, with symptoms including nasal problems, eye conditions, dry throats and headaches, experts explain how work could be bad for you.
By Lisa Salmon
Suffering with a headache or runny nose in the office doesn't always mean you've been staring at the computer too long, or are getting a cold.
It may be the actual work environment that's making you ill.
The charity Allergy UK estimates that around 5.7 million people could be allergic to their workplace, after its research found that 95% of office workers questioned suffered from a multitude of health problems caused by their office environment.
Nearly all of the workers, who were primarily allergy sufferers, had one or more symptoms including headaches, nasal problems, eye conditions, dry throats, breathing difficulties, lethargy and skin irritations in the office.
More than a quarter (27%) said their symptoms got worse in the office, with 62% having experienced itchy or watery eyes, and 27% having had breathing difficulties in their office over the last year.
Allergy UK suggests such symptoms may be caused by allergic reactions to dust and plant spores in the office, and even pet allergens brought in on colleagues' clothes.
Fortunately, allergic employees don't need to change jobs to improve their health - just opening windows, regularly wet-dusting surfaces and making sure carpets are well-vacuumed are some of the simple measures that can reduce indoor allergies.
Lindsey McManus, deputy chief executive of Allergy UK, points out that many people who are allergic to their offices may not have made the connection between their symptoms and the workplace.
She says: "People who get thick heads, blocked-up noses and sore eyes that they just put up with ought to think about whether it's caused by something at work.
"You might have had a week off and felt fine and then gone back to work and got the symptoms again. Ask yourself what it could be.
"It might not be severe enough to stop you working, but it could be addressed relatively easily - simple changes can really make a difference."
Allergy UK points out that there are numerous 'hotspots' around the office that can have huge implications for allergy sufferers, particularly closed windows, carpets, bookcases and plants.
A key problem is lack of ventilation, and the majority of people with allergy symptoms at work don't think their office has enough circulating air - of those questioned, only 15% said their office was well-ventilated.
Most office workers reported that their workplace had carpeted floors, but Allergy UK warns that carpets and soft furnishings can harbour house dust mites - a major cause of allergies.
"You can't expect employers to rip all the carpets up if there's an allergy problem," McManus admits, "but if they're thinking of redecorating and changing things, that's the time to look at it."
Another allergy hotspot is open bookshelves, which are often dusty, so allergens from dust mites can be released into the air when books or other items are removed.
More than a third of offices contain plants, and Allergy UK warns they can harbour moulds which release spores that can cause allergic reactions.
Even colleagues can be responsible for triggering allergies in their workmates, because of the pets they keep at home. The Allergy UK survey found that 34% of respondents had a pet allergy, and might therefore react to allergens (pet dander) brought in on other people's clothes, especially cat hairs. For the 61% of those questioned who sat within a metre of someone else, this risk was even greater.
The study also showed that cleaning of offices is infrequent and doesn't appear adequate enough to prevent the build-up of house dust mites and allergens, with 37% of respondents saying their office was cleaned just once a week or less.
Those who work from home obviously have more control over their office environment, says McManus, but should still be mindful of the allergy risks and make sure their office is kept clean and well-ventilated.
"You haven't got the same control in a workplace away from home," she says, "so if you're really suffering because something in your office seems to be worsening your asthma or perhaps causing allergic rhinitis - itchy eyes, runny nose, sneezing etc - speak to your boss.
"There are things that you can do too - if your symptoms are only mild, then just making your desktop a bit clearer, dusting, and keeping the windows open can make a difference, especially if you notice that you feel better when you're away from the office."
Allergy UK nurse consultant Maureen Jenkins points out that people who already know about their allergies may have existing symptoms, and won't necessarily link any worsening of these symptoms to their office.
"One of the characteristics of allergic conditions is that symptoms are there most of the time and can get worse quickly, often for no apparent reason," she says.
"People are used to this pattern and don't always attribute it to their workplace."
She explains that allergies can start at any age, and can change through life, and warns: "If allergies aren't treated and allergens avoided, then the allergic conditions will become worse due to chronic irritation and inflammation."
Such worsening of symptoms may lead to sickness absence from work, and certainly 42% of allergy sufferers questioned in the survey took time off sick in the last year because of their allergy.
Such absences could affect productivity, as 14% of the allergic respondents took between four and 10 days off sick due to their allergy.
McManus stresses: "If somebody had a back problem, they'd get proper chairs to help them deal with it, so if your office is making you ill, tell your boss.
"I know people don't want to make too much of a fuss, but it's all part of establishing a good working environment."
Tips to avoid office allergies
:: Ensure there's clean air in the office, through open windows, trickle vents or an air conditioning system.
:: If ventilation is limited, an air purifier can help remove and reduce allergens.
:: Check that heating, ventilation and air conditioning units are regularly serviced.
:: If the office is carpeted, urge employers to replace carpets with smooth or flocked Allergy UK-approved flooring.
:: Ensure plants are regularly watered and the top soil removed regularly to avoid moulds, or cover with pea shingle.
:: Ensure the office is cleaned regularly and efficiently.
:: Take control of your desk, keeping it clear and uncluttered, and wet-dust it twice a week.
:: Hang coats away from the desk and 'traffic' areas to prevent dust and allergens from being disturbed and released into the air.
:: Drink plenty of water, as this can help flush allergens from the system.
:: For more information visit www.allergyuk.org or call the Allergy UK helpline on 01322 619 898