Office desks can harbour up to ten million bacteria, say experts in revolting things. Image: Shutterstock

Thursday 5th November 2015

Your desk is bugged

Are office bacteria a big threat to employee wellbeing?

There are two big reasons why you might not be reading this. The first, of course, is that you’re at the CIPD conference and have better things to fill your time. More likely is that you’re off work, laid up with a cold or a similar nasty virus.

According to the Daily Mail, 15% of the population has a cold this week, and that figure’s only going to rise as November trundles on. Apparently, nearly ten million of us will have a cold within the next fortnight.

Of course, many organisations try to cut down on seasonal absence by giving employees flu jabs. But as a recent experiment by stationery company Viking suggests, the most manageable issue in terms of colds and employee not-so-wellbeing might literally be found in front of our snuffly noses.

Swab story

Are bugs cute? See below. Pic: Shutterstock

Viking conducted an experiment in its own office to ‘show what some of the weird and wonderful bugs that surround us every day actually look like when given the chance to grow undisturbed’.

They took swabs from various office items, including a computer mouse, a photocopier, a keyboard, a desk surface, a door handle, a phone and (look away now, if you’re squeamish) a chewed pen and pencil.

Under the guidance of professional lab technicians, they used the swabs to inoculate agar-filled petri dishes. These dishes were put in a cupboard for five days until – well, until ‘the bacterial and fungal cultures had grown to visibly revolting levels’.

The bacteria from the desk and copier eventually looked like this:

The boiler (for hot water) and door bacteria looked like this:


Whilst the bacteria from the chewed pen and pencil looked like this:

It’s pretty horrifying, even if the ‘pen’ bacteria look like Muppet eyes. But as Viking says,

In the end, we found that most areas in our office were technically dirty and that some places should probably be cleaned on a more regular basis. It’s worth remembering, however, that microorganisms such as bacteria thrive everywhere, and maintaining sterile conditions is both unrealistic and largely unnecessary, as we live our lives surrounded by billions of bacteria every day.

So, don’t have nightmares, as they used to say on Crimewatch.

But the experiment does give us a germ of an idea. (Pun intended.) In terms of employee wellbeing, might we be as well off investing more in decent daily cleaning than, say, bicycle schemes, assertiveness classes and lectures on personal finance?

After all, scout around the web and you’ll find all kinds of statistics that could make any health-conscious employee quail. For instance, the Reader’s Digest claims that mobile phone screens and office desks both have more germs than the average office toilet seat. (And think of the kind of use they get. Ugh.)

According to a survey, 50% of workers don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet. And as Mail Online’s pet bacteriologist, Dr Lisa Ackerley points out, ‘Even the soap dispenser can pose a threat.’

If an employer is responsible for a workplace, what are the chances of it getting sued for not cleaning it properly? That’s not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. (Although perhaps you’d be able to counter-sue your employees for bringing most of the bacteria in with them in the first place.)

Donald MacKinnon, Director of Legal Services at Law At Work tells us, ‘Clever lawyers can sue people for anything, so in theory filthy workplaces are a possibility.’ But he adds, perhaps more intriguingly, ‘I suppose an employer could take action against an employee who simply refuses to clean up a messy desk.’

Clean up your act

If all this has hit a nerve, here’s a list of things you can do to ensure your desk is marginally cleaner than most. (You might want to use it to inspire a conversation with those nice fellows from Facilities.)

Clean it. (An obvious tactic perhaps, but when was the last time you actually did?) Clean it at the end of every day. That way you’ll get a sense of closure on the day and a sense of a fresh beginning the following morning.

Don’t put rubbish on it. Ever. We assume you have access to a bin. Use it, and cut out the middleman. Your desk should not be a departure lounge for microbe-laden tissues or chewing gum.

Don’t eat al desko. Munching at your desk means crumbs, which bugs love. So go out and get some fresh air. Or eat off the toilet seat, which by all accounts seems an infinitely more hygienic alternative.

Use hand sanitiser. Regularly cleaning your hands mightn’t limit the bacteria on your desk, but it could stop you coming down with whatever lurgy happens to be skating across your keyboard that day.

Clean – don’t just rinse – your water bottle. That water bottle you fill every day without cleaning is a swimming pool for all the germs that hate you most. Scrub it thoroughly with washing-up liquid. Better still, switch from a plastic bottle to a stainless steel one. Steel is less likely to harbour nasties or even worse, leach toxins.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.