Why all workplaces need a breath of fresh air

No employee wants a hot, stuffy meeting room or an office that reeks of carpet glue. No company should tolerate these issues, either. Recent studies show that poor indoor air quality is a drain on employee health, well-being and productivity. Which is why it’s important for employees to have a breath of fresh air in the workplace environment.

Yes, an airless, smelly office can make you sick. In fact, there’s a name for it: Sick Building Syndrome, or SBS, common in some modern buildings designed without considering the impact of air quality on occupants.

SBS can cause an array of health problems, from headache and fatigue to infections and respiratory problems. Any number of sources can contribute to SBS, from office equipment and wall coverings to dirty humidifiers and even carbon dioxide exhaled by employees themselves in a poorly ventilated space.

The adverse effects of poor air quality have been shown to directly influence employee performance and absenteeism in buildings worldwide. In fact, a World Green Building Council (WGBC) report shows that workplaces with poor air quality and too-warm temperatures consistently reduce employee performance by 10 percent, as measured by typing speed and other indicators

“Numerous studies show that high levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, found in some building materials can lead to employee fatigue as well as impaired focus,” says Bob Best, Executive Vice President of Energy and Sustainability Services, JLL, and co-author of Green + Productive Workplace: The Office of the Future…Today. “By reversing those numbers, focus and energy can be restored and sustained.”

One recent study actually quantifies the impact of workplace air quality improvements. In the researcher’s calculation, doubling the ventilation rate in a typical office would cost between $14 and $40 per person, but would result in an equivalent improvement of up to $6,500 in productivity-per-person per year.

The WGBC report indicates that reducing indoor air pollutants and improving ventilation can improve productivity by 8 to 11 percent on average. One study found that short-term sick leave was 35 percent lower in offices with double the outdoor air supply exchange of similar offices.

A building’s air quality depends on myriad factors, from heating and cooling system design to moisture levels to sheer odor. One first step is to monitor indoor air quality to see when employees are likely to feel the most—or least—comfortable, healthy and productive.

“You don’t have to own the building to make some basic air quality improvements in your space,” advises Best. “Building occupants and office managers can also take some simple, but impactful, steps to improve indoor air.” You don’t want Sick Building Syndrome.

Air Masters recommends that companies:

Keep workplace vents open and unobstructed at all times
Bring in the greenery. NASA researchers have shared some suggestions for best air-filtration plants
Choose paint and carpeting with low to zero emissions of VOCs
Place air cleaners around the office
Opt for environmentally-friendly cleaning products
Insist on well-maintained facilities in which the facility manages keep ventilation systems in good working order and regularly clean the air ducts
The most effective big-ticket option is to bring in more fresh air, whether with operable windows, mechanical ventilation, or other means. Updating ventilation can be complex, and must be considered carefully in relation to a building’s overall energy strategy.

Done well, ventilation is an effective defense against poor air quality—Carnegie Mellon research cited by WGBC concluded that better ventilation could spur 0.8 to 1.3 percent savings in health costs, 3 to 18 percent gains in productivity, and as much as 47 to 79 percent in heating and cooling savings.

“Since the cost of people is typically more than 90 percent of a company’s costs, doesn’t it make financial sense to invest in making them more productive through a simple change, like better ventilation?” asks Best. “Why let returns like that just disappear into thin air?”