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How Indoor Air Quality Affects Work Productivity

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If you struggle to complete tasks at work or feel dissatisfied with the company where you are employed, then indoor air quality might partially be to blame.

According to a number of recent studies, worker fatigue, discomfort or other physical or mental ailments not associated with any specific disease might be the result of common airborne contaminants found in modern office buildings. The term “sick building syndrome” (SBS) was coined to explain the effect of this indoor pollution on workers.

Unfortunately, SBS is not well understood because it doesn’t affect everybody the same way. So, rather than attempt and clearly define SBS, some researchers set out to better understand the effects of indoor air pollution on occupants working inside an office space. Specifically, researchers measured how changes to temperature, relative humidity and pollution would affect worker productivity and comfort.

The Impact Of Air Quality On Productivity and Comfort

International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy, Technical University of Denmark, has investigated a number of studies conducted across Europe to better understand the effects of air quality on workers.

Clean Air Could Improve Work Performance By 9%

In a study of common workplace sources of air pollution, workers were exposed to old carpet, used air filters, and electronics commonly found at workstations that were shown to emit volatile organic chemicals. Researchers measured the effect of polluted air on productivity, then introduced fresher outdoor air into the workspace.

The study concludes that the measurable effect of polluted indoor air reduced work performance by as much as 9%. Given these results, researchers note that given the high cost of labor, applying a solution that identifies and removes the source of pollution or increases the flow of fresh air in the workspace, regardless of cost, might net a return of investment in as little as 2 years.

Temperature And Humidity Changed Perceptions Of Indoor Air Quality

To understand the role of temperature and humidity on the perceptions of the workplace environment, 30 subjects were exposed to an environment at three levels of air temperature and humidity, and two levels of ventilation rates. The subjects were exposed to each environmental condition for 280 minutes, then marked a set of scales to indicate their perception of environmental conditions and intensity of SBS symptoms.

The study found that longer term exposure to a low indoor air temperature and relative humidity might help to improve work performance, and may also help to alleviate SBS symptoms whiling improving comfort and satisfaction in a work environment. Notably, this study did not measure indoor air pollution.

Lower Talk Times Among Call Center Operators

A study conducted with 26 call center operators looked at the relationship between productivity and new air filters, higher ventilation rates and outdoor airflow into indoor environments. Researchers theorized that improving indoor air quality would reduce talk-time, thereby improving productivity by taking more calls during a workday.

During the 8 week study, without the operators’ knowledge, old air filters were swapped with new air filters and the flow of outdoor air was increased from 8% to 80%. At the end of each week, operators submitted questionnaires that asked about their environmental perceptions and SBS symptoms.

Ultimately, the study found that talk times could be reduced by 10% when new air filters were combined with higher ventilation rates, and talk time could be reduced by 6% when increasing the flow rate of outdoor air into the indoor environment. The study also found that old air filters resulted in talk times increasing by 8%, which resulted in fewer calls taken during the day.

Ways To Identify Indoor Air Quality Issues

The American Industrial Hygiene Association states that “most occupants barely notice when indoor air quality is ‘good,’ but most people will often recognize when the air is not good.” To better determine whether claims about poor indoor air quality have merit, the AIHA recommends filling in the following questionnaire with building occupants and visual inspection to gather more information:

  1. What are the specific complaints?
  2. Where in the building are similar concerns about IAQ occurring?
  3. When does the problem occur?
  4. When and where did it first occur?
  5. Who is affected? Is it isolated, or over a large area?
  6. What health effects or discomfort are occupants experiencing?
  7. Do the health effects cease soon after leaving the building, or over the weekend?
  8. Have those affected seen a physician and, if so, what were the diagnoses (do not violate patient privacy)?
  9. Is there any environmental condition (e.g., weather) or activity (e.g., remodeling, use of the photocopier, spraying of pesticides) inside or outside the building associated with the occurrence of the problem?
  10. Has the building engineer or HVAC contractor evaluated the area(s) and, if so, what were their conclusions?

After speaking with a diverse group of workers, there should be enough information to move ahead with identifying a possible solution without wasting time or spending too much money. As the AIHA writes, “hiring someone to perform a poorly conceived study is worse than a waste of money and time; it may lead to erroneous conclusions and costly remedial efforts of little or no intrinsic worth.”

If worker productivity and satisfaction is important to a company, it might worth the time and financial expense to investigate issues and seek solutions.

To start improving your air quality today, take a look at our blog about the 12 Best Air Purifying Indoor Plants to learn how indoor plants may help to alleviate symptoms of SBS and reduce airborne pollution around the office.

Do you feel like your place of work has air quality issues? Let us know if you think it has had an impact on your performance at work in the comments below.

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