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BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — The office environment can cause asthma and working from home could reduce sick days and stop staff from quitting, according to a new study. The seemingly innocuous environment of the office is potentially damaging to the lungs. Printer toner and cleaning products, poor ventilation, and mold circulating in air conditioning can trigger asthma. Exposure to these hazards makes people a hundred times more likely to quit, scientists warn.

“Any work environment can induce occupational asthma if it harbors a respiratory sensitizer. This is a substance that triggers an irreversible allergic reaction, such as paint spray or dust,” says study lead author Dr. Christopher Huntley of University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust in a media release.

“We usually think of an office as a safe environment, so it’s possible that when asthma is diagnosed in office workers, occupational causes may be overlooked. As a result, there has been very little research on this issue,” Dr. Huntley continues. “However, we have been diagnosing increasing cases of occupational asthma in patients who work in office environments, as well as detecting clusters of cases in specific offices.”

What’s causing asthma in offices?

The researcher notes that about 25 million Americans have asthma. Finding and tackling the roots of the condition can keep people on the job. The study also finds those with asthma brought on by their working environment left their jobs and, if bosses did not make changes to combat the problem, the issue occurred more often.

Dr. Huntley and colleagues analyzed 47 cases of occupational asthma reported to the Birmingham Regional Occupational Lung Disease Service. Most were diagnosed by a simple “peak flow” test. It measures how quickly a person can blow air out of your lungs.

The researchers identified three main categories that were sources of their condition. First, triggers inside the office included printer toner, floor tile adhesive, mold, and cleaning products. Second, triggers stemmed from the ventilation system such as mold in air conditioning and shafts that had been installed incorrectly. Third, asthma could be set off by outside factors, such as nearby workshops, paint, and traffic fumes.

Poor work spaces drive employees to quit

Further analysis showed over a third of the participants had particularly sensitive airways. The team conducted an investigation of whether adjustments were made to support vulnerable individuals. That report highlighted another problem — failure by employers to act increased the chances of sufferers resigning by 100 times.

“It is still one of the largest studies reporting occupational asthma in office workers. We discovered some key causes to be aware of in an office environment, but there will certainly be others. If a worker develops occupational asthma, workplace adjustments can and should be made to improve asthma symptoms and help retain staff,” Dr. Huntley says.

The study author points out lockdown and other restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced the number of new asthma referrals. Moreover, those with occupational asthma have seen improvements while working from home.

“Working from home has been useful for patients in both establishing their diagnosis and as a form of non-pharmacological treatment. Allowing workers with occupational asthma to continue working from home may help keep office workers in their jobs as they require fewer sick days,” Dr. Huntley explains.

Office jobs can lead to other health issues too

The findings, presented at the European Respiratory Society International Congress, add to evidence desk jobs are bad for health.

“We tend to think of office environments as relatively safe, compared with other occupational settings where exposure to pollutants may occur,” says advocacy council chair Professor Arzu Yorgancioglu of Celal Bayar University, Turkey, who did not take part in the study.

“It is likely that there are more patients out there with undiagnosed office work-related asthma,” Prof. Yorgancioglu explains. “For office workers with asthma who experience an unexplained deterioration in their symptoms, this study highlights the importance of identifying and removing any potential occupational triggers. Where we see clusters of work-related asthma in offices it is vital to investigate the underlying cause, as the causes may be surprising.”

Previous research has found that sitting in front of a computer for hours also impacts your eyes, heart, and back. It can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and vision loss.

The current culture has given rise to the “weekend warrior” who packs a week’s worth of exercise into two days and practices yoga or meditation after work hours. However, that may only have a superficial benefit. Sitting for more than six hours a day has a severe impact on all aspects of health, warn experts.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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