Bare feet in the office: How hygenic is kicking your shoes off in the work place?

By Daisy Yates

Bare feet in the office: a harmless way to cool off? Or a health and safety issue that isn’t too nice to see or smell either?

MM investigate free feet and get the lowdown from a University of Salford foot expert on what the dangers really are.


Though to some it is a harmless way to cool off or relax during an unbearable and seemingly endless day in the office, bare feet airing off under the desk are a lot of people’s worst nightmare.

Sometimes it’s pure desperation that drives us to a wriggle of the toes under the desk; that can be forgiven.  

The true crime, it seems, is that one co-worker who capers around the office airing their hobbit feet for the whole world to see (or smell.)

Perhaps it’s just prudish and petty to hold such a vendetta against shoeless colleagues but nevertheless a significant portion of office workers class it as a major pet peeve.

 Nick Clegg has revealed he’s prone to kicking off the leather and adding a fresh and possibly more pungent thorn in Mr Cameron’s side.

The Deputy Prime Minister admitted his indiscretions to LBC radio: “I was padding around in my office without my shoes on yesterday, but obviously in public events when I have to respect the dignity of the office I put my shoes back on.”

Clegg added: “I’m perfectly relaxed actually about people who work in my office, as long as they’re not doing public facing jobs where they have to obviously keep up appearances, but if they’re in their offices working hard, as they do, I’m very keen that they shouldn’t overheat.”

However, evidence suggests that an overwhelming number of people find it offensive when their colleagues traipse around the office without shoes on and Mancunians were no exception. 

Beverley Edwards, 44, who works in an office in the city centre, said: “Personally this is something that I would never do, purely for health and safety purposes.

“However I did have the misfortune of sitting beside somebody in the workplace who used to slip their shoes off occasionally, the disgusting smell that lingered can only be described as stale cheese.”

Bethany Eaton, a 19-year-old office worker from Hale, said: “People should keep their shoes on because they should respect other people’s opinions and it’s not nice to smell feet when you’re trying to work.”

Jo Forrest, 47, working in Bowdon, agreed.

“It depends if they’re just at their desks and if their feet don’t smell,” she said. “But if they smell and they’re walking around the office with no shoes on then there’s no excuse. They should be forced to keep their shoes on and if their boss has to get involved then so be it!”

A survey conducted in the US by recruitment firm Adecco last July confirms the general disapproval of this behaviour with 43% of the 1,010 participants saying they don’t like co-workers going barefoot in the workspace.

A further 76% also thought that flip flops were inappropriate for the workplace – even in summer.

Yet boldly going against this is the Barefoot Alliance – an ‘advisory board’ apparently made up of bare-footers and scientists.

Founded in 2010, the alliance declare their prime objective is to make society more ‘barefoot friendly’.

“We CAN live barefoot even in the developed world, and even in public,” their website states. “We advocate for people to go barefoot and let feet live free in their innate condition.”

They claim that there are no laws in the UK or US against walking around barefoot and even driving barefoot (aside from riding a motorcycle in Alabama, apparently) – though they admit many shops will have their own rules on what is allowed.

But what about in the office?

The Barefoot Alliance believe kicking the shoes off in work will actually make you more productive.

Citing The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s assessment that environmental conditions – including ergonomics involving chairs, desks, shoes – are contributing factors to workplace stress, the alliance believe the solution is simple: kick off your shoes!

They even refer to German ergonomics researcher Dr. Dieter Breithecker, who claims that putting the bare soles of your feet in contact with different sensations will help to relieve tension and reduce stress.

“If we’re more comfortable and have less non-work-related problems on our minds –like how uncomfortable our shoes are – we can focus better on the tasks at hand,” the alliance claim. “Better focus means higher productivity.”

But what about the health implications?

Aside from the smell, one of people’s biggest fears is being in a cramped office with someone’s bunions, boils, athlete’s foot, fungal infections, bacteria build-ups, corns and calluses exposed to the air conditioning and carpet underfoot. Sound pretty gross, right?

Well the alliance still believe going barefoot is the solution.

“Barefoot workers will also have healthier feet,” they say. “If an employee can avoid sticking their feet in cramped, uncomfortable shoes for eight hours or more each day, they will be far less likely to deal with common shoe-caused afflictions that remove workers from the job.”

But curing your bunions in the workplace doesn’t sit right with all office workers.

Joe, 32, works for a South Manchester-based accountancy firm.

“I don’t care if airing your feet might eventually mean your feet will be healthier,” he said.

“Before getting to that stage you have your athlete’s foot and fungal infections out in the office, dropping bits of skin everywhere and walking on the same carpet everyone else walks on – it’s simply disgusting and unhygienic, and there’s no excuse for it!”

But how unhygienic is it really?

MM caught up with Senior Lecturer in Podiatry at the University of Salford, Dr Anita Williams.

Myths of potential feet-induced epidemics as fungi go airborne through the air conditioning were busted by the foot-expert.

She told MM: “It depends on the environment but in a carpeted area the chances of infection are unlikely.

“The risk is minimal, it isn’t really an issue, it’s only a problem in places like a swimming pool.”

She added: “Sweaty feet are more likely to spread the spores and viruses that cause fungal infections and verrucae.”

Instead, Dr Williams warned of the health and safety ramifications for those actually going shoeless.

“Walking barefoot isn’t an issue but shoes are a good protective mechanism, especially for foot conditions like flat feet, wearing the right shoes can really help,” she said.

“There’s obviously the danger of dropping objects on your feet or walking on things like drawing pins which may be a problem with health and safety, but otherwise it won’t cause any damage.”

Picture courtesy of Slyworking2, with thanks.

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