It can be a gut-churning, sweaty-brow inducing realisation: no matter how determinedly you clench and abstain from coffee, you’re going to have to do a number two in the office bathroom.
What to do? Rush to the furthest cubicle, lay a ‘drop sheet’ to muffle the sound and hope no-one recognises your shoes below the stall? Hold on until your boss finishes the seemingly interminable process of washing his or her hands? Or lock yourself in the toilets two floors down?
Despite the current focus on carefully designed workplaces to maximise employee performance, the trip to the office toilet remains a dire affair. But it doesn’t have to be this way, surely.
Many hang-ups around public dunnies are irrational – after all, there’s nothing more universally human than needing to ‘go’. But there are good reasons HR professionals should be concerned about this.
A 2013 Initial Hygiene report states 50 per cent of office workers are unhappy with bathroom facilities and say workplace hygiene affects their productivity.
University of Melbourne’s Nick Haslam, author of Psychology in the Bathroom, explains why the trip to the loo remains taboo.
“It’s associated with shame and disgust,” the psychology professor says.
“As a child you learn it’s something you should do in private and the product is revolting.”
These anxieties can be heightened and exacerbated in a hierarchical workplace setting.
“A senior staff member may see going to the bathroom as demeaning, taking away from their authority,” he says.
It’s not limited to number twos either. Stage fright, bashful bladder and the slow dribble are colloquial names for the anxiety disorder, paruresis. Haslam says it can be debilitating.
“Sufferers will go out of their way to avoid excreting in public bathrooms,” he says.
“In some cases, they become housebound or plan their day around safe bathrooms.”
This is an extreme example, but according to the International Paruresis Association, the condition affects seven per cent of people. And yet, office bathrooms have barely changed since the days of typewriters and telegrams.
That’s because they’ve always been an afterthought, according to Suzie Dyson, manager of Australian-based bathroom design firm Omvivo.
“People spend money where it’s more obvious, such as in reception areas,” says the head of the Schiavello Group subsidiary.
Flimsy cubicle dividers, with gaps at the bottom for easy mop access, are an efficient way to build toilets where every square metre is at a premium.
“Space is the biggest restriction on innovation and legally a certain number of cubicles need to be provided per employee,” Dyson says.
Founder of workplace design firm Calder Consultants, James Calder, believes innovation has been hampered by a culture of leasing buildings, rather than owning them.
“That foible has driven a minimised space kind of attitude to bathrooms because they’re not generating rent,” he explains.
But Calder says he thinks the days of bog-standard bathrooms are numbered. Silicon Valley tech companies, flush with cash, will lead the charge he believes.
“The dot-coms have all got food, beer and ping-pong tables, but the toilets are rubbish,” Melbourne-based Calder notes.
“Why draw the line at toilets? Bathrooms can be humorous, they can be a talking point, anything to get away from a sterile environment.”
But Singapore-based founder of the wonderfully-titled World Toilet Organisation, Jack Sim, believes workplaces first need to focus on anxiety triggers in the bathroom.
“Full height, partitioned, private rooms for each cubicle are needed because privacy is of utmost priority,” he explains. “And acoustics must (cover) embarrassing sounds.”
A simple solution is playing music, radio or even white noise. Dyson from Omvivo adds there are new, high-tech ways to address germ phobias.
“Soon you might not need to touch anything – there are automatically flushing cisterns, automatic soap and paper towel dispensers, taps, hand-dryers,” she lists.
The bottom line is, you shouldn’t have to forego your morning coffee to avoid a furtive trip to the toilet. Done well, bathrooms could replace the water cooler as the hub for good, clean, inter-departmental fraternising. As Dyson jokes, “if it was plush enough and comfy enough it could be the next meeting area. Why not?”
This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the October 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Shame of thrones’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here.