Where bacteria are living in your home office and how to clean it

Where bacteria are living in your home office and how to clean it
  • PublishedMay 1, 2024

My desk at the office is almost completely bare, minus the odd drinking glass or tissue box.

At home it’s a different story, with work papers, personal bills and trinkets jumbled together on my desk.

Put simply, I don’t feel compelled to keep a tidy workspace when it’s only really me who sees it — and it sounds like I’m not alone.

“You haven’t got eyes looking at you — there isn’t that social pressure like a messy desk at work, or 15 coffee cups having people think you are disorganised or a bit gross,” says Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University.

Research shows office desks harbour germs. The typical office desk is home to more than 10 million bacteria, which is 400 times more than a toilet seat.

The experts we spoke to say things might not look that different in your work-from-home space, with the biggest culprit being your keyboard.

Why your keyboard could be a breeding ground for bacteria

A lot of biological matter — skin cells, bacteria, hairs — are shed by people every day, explains Dr Emma Harding, a virology researcher at UNSW,

“Keyboards and desks are ideal places for this matter to accumulate and, if not cleaned, [they] become breeding grounds for bacteria,” she says.

That’s evident when you tip your keyboard upside down and give it a little tap (ew).

“Keyboards are a notorious one, especially if you eat at your desk, as they are the most touched part of our office in general,” Dr Harding says.

Your mouse, headphones, and phones can also breed bacteria and introduce it onto your skin.

Dr Harding says regular cleaning can help prevent the build-up of “bad” bacteria in your home workspace.

“[Bad bacteria] would be introduced if we work at our desk while sick and spread the germs onto our equipment,” she says.

“If not cleaned, even after we are better, the bad microbes can still be lurking in our space and reinfect us or others.”

However, the reality is that some bacteria will survive — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“No matter how clean we are, how many showers you have a day and how much soap you rub all over … we are covered in bacteria,” says Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor and infectious diseases specialist at the Australian National University.

“They have a very symbolic relationship with us, we need them there too.”

How to clean your home office

Dr Harding recommends cleaning keyboards at least once a week by wiping the keys with disinfectant.

“Taking off the keys can help remove food and skin or hairs that have fallen into the keyboard,” she says, adding that can be done once every few months.

Dr Senanayake says some keyboards are washable, which can make cleaning easier.

Your mouse, headphones, phones, and desk surface should also be sterilised once a week.

Normal cleaning products like disinfectants, surface cleaners and alcohol wipes will prevent microbes building up.

“Anything else you regularly touch should be sterilised weekly,” Dr Harding says.

“If you prefer more natural cleaners, white vinegar can also be used to wipe surfaces and will prevent a build-up of microbes,” Dr Harding says.

She recommends a deep clean if you’ve worked at the desk while sick, “especially with respiratory infections like COVID or the flu”.

Dr Harding adds that good ventilation can help prevent the growth of mould or other harmful microbes behind and under desks.

“I have worked at a home desk before where the side facing the wall was covered in mould and I didn’t realise until I moved house.”

The benefits to a clean home workspace

Dr Sander says cleaner office buildings have a 12.5 per cent decrease in sickness absences, and increased productivity.

She says we can also reduce illness and improve productivity in the home with cleaner workspaces.

As for clutter, it can cause us to procrastinate, and reduce our brain’s ability to focus, explains Dr Sander.

It can also negatively impact our mental health and wellbeing.

“People who have cluttered homes and disorganised spaces exercise less, are more anxious and stressed, and make poorer food choices — it even affects our sleep,” Dr Sander says.

Dr Sander says she recently minimalised her desk set-up.

“I have minimal cables, all these beautiful accessories … a new light on top of my screen.

“It’s just beautiful and zen and makes me more productive.”


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