As people begin to return to offices after working remotely, a new study suggests that clutter on the job is more than just an annoyance to neatniks. It might also be an indicator that employees are unhappy at work, especially if they have upper-level positions.
Researchers surveyed 202 office workers and linked higher perceived levels of clutter to less satisfaction/pleasure from work and more work-related burnout/tension. While the findings don’t confirm which came first – clutter or unhappiness on the job – they do suggest that the office work environment is more than an matter of appearances.
Study lead author Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, Chicago, goes even further and suggests that clutter might undermine well-being. “If someone comes into [a therapist’s office] with lots of clutter, they probably have it at home and work, and it’s hindering their life,” Dr. Ferrari said in an interview. “Having a lot of clutter piles is really not a good thing. It makes you less effective.”
Dr. Ferrari has conducted several studies into clutter. He and colleagues launched the new study, published in the International Journal of Psychological Research and Reviews, to explore the impact of clutter at the office.
“The impact of clutter on employee well-being may affect profit, staff motivation, the buildup of slack/extraneous resources, interpersonal conflict, attitudes about work, and employee behavior,” Dr. Ferrari and colleagues wrote.
The researchers surveyed participants in 290 workers in 2019 and focused on 209 who worked in offices (60% were men, 87% were 45 years old or younger, 65% held a college or advanced degree, and 79% were White). Most were lower-level employees rather than higher-level employees with management responsibilities.
Both upper-and lower-level employees mentioned the same types of clutter most often – paper, office equipment, and trash, such as used coffee cups. The upper-level workers reported more problems with clutter, although this might be because they are more sensitive to it than lower-level workers, Dr. Ferrari said.
The researchers found that “office clutter was significantly negatively related to ... satisfaction/pleasure from work and significantly positively related to a risk for burnout/tension from work.” They also reported that “upper-level workers were significantly more likely to report clutter and being at risk for burnout/tension than lower-level workers.”
Specifically, a technique known as exploratory factor analysis determined that “63% of office clutter behavior can be explained by either satisfaction/pleasure with one’s work or risk for burnout,” Dr. Ferrari said. The findings suggest that clutter leads to negative feelings about work, not the other way around, he said.
The new study does not address whether clutter has positive attributes, as suggested by a 2013 report published in Psychological Science.
Darby Saxbe, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who studies work stress, said in an interview that it can be difficult to figure out the direction of causality in a study like this. “Someone who’s overwhelmed might generate more clutter and not have the bandwidth to put things away. If the space is really cluttered, you won’t be able to find things as effectively, or keep track of projects as well, and that will feed more feelings of stress and burnout.”
David Spiegel, MD, Willson Professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford (Calif.) University, agreed.
“The idea of clutter in the environment having a negative effect on mood is interesting, but it is equally likely that clutter reflects burnout, inability to complete tasks and dispose of their remnants,” he said in an interview. “There may be a relationship, and they may interact, but the direction is not clear,” said Dr. Spiegel, who is also director of Stanford’s Center on Stress and Health.
Still, he said, “in these days of Zoom therapy, observing clutter in a patient’s room or office may provide a hint about potential burnout and depression.”
No funding is reported. Dr. Ferrari, Dr. Saxbe, and Dr. Spiegel reported no disclosures.