Bad Office Air Quality May Harm Productivity

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If you’ve ever hit a slump at work, your lack of productivity might not have been completely your fault. According to a new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, a lack of fresh air being consistently pumped into your office might actually be to blame for sluggish work performance.  

For years, it was assumed that workers would be fine if an office building met commonly used air quality standards. However, as the study’s authors explain, the standards on how much air from the outside is brought in are simply not good enough.

Credit: Roshan Vyas/Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

“In the 1970s, efforts to conserve energy in the U.S. included tightening up buildings and reducing ventilation rates so buildings didn’t have to bring as much fresh air inside,” the study’s co-author Joseph G. Allen explained in the Harvard Business Review.

This effort, unfortunately, led to a phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome,” which is when occupants in a building experience health ailments that are linked to the time they spend in that space. Sick building syndrome is still a problem today; some of the symptoms include headaches, coughing, chest tightness and eye irritation.

Since previous studies have linked poor air ventilation and quality with physical ailments, the researchers wanted to find out if it can also impact cognitive function and worker productivity.

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The researchers asked 24 “knowledge workers” — people who were either managers, architects or designers — to spend a total of six days over a two-week period in a controlled work environment. Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the air quality was changed from a conventional environment that met minimal standards to an optimized one.

The optimized work environment doubled the amount of outdoor air brought into the space. The researchers also controlled the level of volatile organic compounds in the space by limiting the number of materials that emit those chemicals, such as dry erase markers, building materials and surface cleaners.

“We found that breathing better air led to significantly better decision-making performance among our participants,” Allen wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “We saw higher test scores across nine cognitive function domains when workers were exposed to increased ventilation rates, lower levels of chemicals, and lower carbon dioxide. The results showed the biggest improvements in areas that tested how workers used information to make strategic decisions and how they plan, stay prepared, and strategize during crises.”

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The researchers then studied an additional 100 knowledge workers in 10 different buildings across the U.S. Six of those buildings were “green certified.” Although green certified buildings mean they use less energy and as a result may have lower ventilation rates, many of the workers in those buildings received higher scores on the tests.

Another factor the researchers found to have an impact on productivity was climate and temperature. When people worked in a comfortable temperature and humidity range, they typically received higher test scores when it came to decision making, no matter what kind of building they were in.

Danielle Tarasiuk
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.