The stale air in your office building is affecting your performance

Dear Reader, I write this story on top of and next to indoor chemical contaminants that are slowly killing office workers across America.

These killers are commonly known as a “carpet,” a “copy machine” or a “dry erase board.” All three killers surround my desk! And probably yours! Take a deep breath.

New research has confirmed that stale office air and chemical contaminants are hurting workers’ health. Now, try breathing that out.

Good air makes you better at your job

This is what the Harvard Business Review concluded in its March article on how office air quality could affect workers’ cognitive performance. They found that all other factors being equal with workers —like salary, location, type of work— the workers in buildings with good office air quality were more productive than workers with lower office air quality.

Here’s how they tested this: they got 24 managers, architects, and designers to spend six days in an office where the researchers could slowly improve the air quality without their knowledge.

The office started off with meeting the minimum “acceptable indoor air” standard. But by bringing more outside air into the building, the researchers could improve building ventilation and lower indoor carbon dioxide levels.

Why carbon dioxide? Because high carbon dioxide levels has been linked to nausea, headaches and other bad symptoms. The researchers also removed Volatile Organic Compounds, which are indoor chemical contaminants that increase our health risks. Examples of VOCs can be as innocuous as a dry erase marker, dry cleaned clothes, carpeting and copy machines. Chronic exposure to VOCs has been linked to more serious sicknesses like cancer and liver damage.

At the end of each day, the researchers would give the workers a cognitive test to test the link between air quality and how well people worked.

They found that increasing air quality was most helpful to improving “areas that tested how workers used information to make strategic decisions and how they plan, stay prepared, and strategize during crises.”

No wonder the happiest people are those who spend four workdays a week outside the office.

Sick building syndrome

There’s a medical condition for this: sick building syndrome.

It refers to a situation where you notice that your comfort and health is linked to the time spent in a building.

Have you noticed that it’s literally easier for you to breathe when you’re outside the office? Do persistent headaches with no specific cause go away once you leave your desk? That’s not just stress. You may be experiencing SBS.

Worse: it’s pretty common.

A 1984 World Health Organization Committee report found that up to 30% of new buildings could be causing this, usually due to buildings being operated in a different way than their original design intended. In the 1970’s, U.S. buildings were made increasingly airtight to improve energy efficiency. Unfortunately, this came at the cost of our health.

Mood, mental function and good air

Numerous studies have found links between clean air and health and mental benefits. In Chicago, one researcher found that installing a ventilation system up to federal standards in 81 low-income houses made a significant impact in those households. Children were breathing easier and adults had less “psychological distress.” In a separate test, the researchers in the HBR article compared workers in “green certification” buildings with workers in non-certified buildings across 10 U.S. buildings. Workers in green certified buildings were generally more satisfied with their office air. They were less likely to report that their office was too hot or too cold, or the their indoor air was too dry or too humid. Workers in “green certified,” comfortable indoor conditions would also perform better on decision-making tests.

With all the benefits to clean air, the HBR researchers suggest that we should rethink clean air as a “human resource tool.” So next time, you’re interviewing for a job, after you ask about vacation time and benefits, ask about what your employer is doing to improve office air quality.