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Sewage smells, rodents and shabby carpets – the UK workplace in 2019

Nick Bizley

From sewage smells and mice to shabby carpets and grotty bathrooms, many of the UK’s workplaces are unpleasant, uncomfortable and at risk of driving down productivity, according to new research* Nick Bizley, Commercial Director Aspect.

A nationally representative poll of 2,000 people found that 83 percent of UK adults consider their workplace to be an “unpleasant” environment, with many citing uncomfortable temperatures, lack of natural light, unpleasant smells, damp and mould, poor ventilation and even vermin and insects among their complaints. 

The study was designed to identify the most common causes of employee discomfort at work. On the whole, issues related to physical comfort were the most common complaints. 46 percent complained of workplaces that were “too hot”, 43 percent complained of workplaces being “too cold” and 28 percent complained of workplaces having poor ventilation.

Workplace amenities were also a cause for concern. 21 percent complained about the condition of bathrooms, 16 percent cited shabbiness of flooring and carpets and 14 percent bemoaned their workplace’s poor quality fixtures and fittings. Other issues included intrusive noises, food smells, insect problems and dripping taps. 

Workers aged 25-34 were the most likely to complain about their working environment and workers aged 55 and over were least likely to do the same. The condition of the UK’s workplaces appears to affect women and men differently too. While women were only marginally more likely than men to consider their place of work to be unpleasant, women and men do tend to have different complaints.

Water temperature, shabby flooring, condition of bathrooms, workplaces being too cold and food smells were more likely to be a problem for women. Sewage smells, intrusive sounds, insects, leaks and pests were more of a cause for concern for men.

Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE is a specialist in organisational psychology and health with a focus on workplaces. He believes employers are failing to get the basics right when it comes to creating a decent working environment.

“As we saw with the burst water pipe in the House of Commons back in April, a physically unpleasant or even unsafe workplace is obviously bad for productivity and for an organisation’s external image. Issues like intrusive noises, uncomfortable temperatures and general shabbiness can be a distraction, but it’s also a matter of respect from employers toward their people. Employers ought to go further than simply meeting health and safety requirements to ensure workplaces are as pleasant and comfortable as possible. 

“Those that don’t are sending a signal to their people that their physical comfort and freedom from distraction are a low priority, which can be demoralising for any workforce. That’s not to say organisations need to invest in high-spec fit-outs and luxurious surroundings, but they should focus instead on meeting a basic standard of environmental comfort appropriate for their industry. 

“The complaints highlighted in the study suggest a wide spectrum of failure when it comes to meeting these basic standards. Workplaces should be a comfortable temperature and well-lit where possible, free from intrusive noise, bad smells and other avoidable sources of unpleasantness.”

Nick Bizley, Aspect’s commercial director, says organisations could significantly improve workplace comfort with a few simple changes:

“The majority of the big complaints revealed by the study relate to issues that can be fixed or mitigated quite easily. For example, we visit organisations who would have significantly more natural light if they just rearranged some of their furniture. It’s quite surprising how many windows are obscured by whiteboards, shelves and sometimes even posters. 

“Some of the other problems are just down to a lack of proper maintenance. Damp, leaks and sewage odours are a sign that these firms need to call a plumber. The fact that more than one in ten people have complained about pests and vermin in their place of work is worrying.

Full responses

complaint All women men
too cold 46.35 percent 50.20 percent 42.41 percent
too hot 43.00 percent 42.98 percent 43.02 percent
lack of natural light 30.70 percent 31.82 percent 29.55 percent
bad lighting 28.85 percent 28.46 percent 29.25 percent
poor ventilation 27.90 percent 27.96 percent 27.83 percent
bad smells in general 25.65 percent 25.49 percent 25.81 percent
food smells 22.00 percent 23.72 percent 20.24 percent
condition of bathrooms 21.05 percent 23.62 percent 18.42 percent
intrusive noise/sounds 20.40 percent 19.76 percent 21.05 percent
sewage smells 16.95 percent 14.92 percent 19.03 percent
shabby carpet/tiles 15.75 percent 17.89 percent 13.56 percent
poor quality fixtures and fittings 14.40 percent 14.62 percent 14.17 percent
insects 13.05 percent 12.55 percent 13.56 percent
damp/mould 12.75 percent 13.24 percent 12.25 percent
pests/vermin 11.35 percent 11.17 percent 11.54 percent
water temperature 10.95 percent 12.85 percent 9.01 percent
leaks 10.75 percent 10.47 percent 11.03 percent
dripping water 9.30 percent 9.19 percent 9.41 percent
N/A / never been employed 2.35 percent 2.17 percent 2.53 percent
none of the above 15.10 percent 14.92 percent 15.28 percent


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