Office hygiene: dirty desks

It may have come as some surprise to the female-dominated profession of HR that, according to new research by the University of Arizona, women’s desks harbour more germs than men’s, and the average office desktop has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.


Women have three to four times the number of bacteria in, on and around their desks as men do, the study by Professor Charles Gerba showed. “I thought for sure men would be germier,” he says. “But women have more interactions with small children, and they keep food in their desks. The other problem is make-up.” And although women’s desks typically look cleaner, their tendency to use cosmetics or hand lotions means that germs actually travel around more easily.


Women also eat a lot more food at their desks. “I was really surprised how much food there was in a woman’s desk,” says Gerba. “If there’s ever a famine, that’s the first place I’ll look for food.” Gerba also found that hygiene deteriorated with bad weather, as more people would stay at their desks for lunch.


But women can’t be blamed for the entire workplace grime epidemic. Overall, men’s wallets were found to be the worst germ offenders, while second were hand-held computer gadgets such as BlackBerries. However, women were more prepared to tackle desktop hygiene.


“Women’s desks were dirtier, but they did make an effort to clean them,” says Gerba. “Men never seemed to clean anything, and if they did then they used an old towel or something, which made the problem worse.”


Seb Bailey, director of training consultancy The Mind Gym, believes that desk cleanliness is more to do with personality type than gender.


“Polychrons, or multi-taskers, are more likely to have a messier desk as they start a task, then move onto something else, then go back to the first task. Monochrons will start a task and finish it.


“Women have more of a tendency to polychronicity, doing things like sending e-mails while on the phone and eating a sandwich.”


There is a positive for the polychrons among us, though. “A little bit of chaos is good,” says Bailey. “It shows creativity by helping you make connections. It’s better than being clinically clean and tidy.”


HR director Sharon Benson, who works for Trinity-Chiesi Pharmaceuticals, says she would only intervene about the state of someone’s desk if she saw “cups with penicillin growing in them”. “I think women tend to be untidier, as we have more happening on our desks, but it’s surprising that our desks are less clean.


“I think dirty desks result either from having so much on the go that the lack of hygiene is an oversight, or people just being lazy,” she adds. “We have to send e-mails to staff saying ‘put your cups back in the kitchen’, and any food left in the fridge gets chucked out on a Friday.”


So does HR set a good example? Benson freely admits that her own desk is “an embarrassing sight”, so perhaps not.




  • Use a disinfectant wipe once a day on your desk, phone, computer mouse, keyboard and desk drawer


  • Don’t store food in drawers as it makes them mouldy


  • Bin anything edible in the fridge or on your desk on Friday that’s been there since Monday


  • Use hand sanitisers regularly


  • Wash your hands often


  • View desk hygiene as a regular task, not something to do in the gap between Christmas and New Year

By Lucy Freeman

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