Indoor Air Quality In Offices - How is it affecting your Business?

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As the world is progressing towards more and more development and there is massive urbanisation taking place, the corporate workforce is getting exposed to harmful levels of air pollution both indoors and outdoors. Be it on their commute or at their place of work, employees are at a health risk from the air they breathe.

According to a WHO research, air pollution costs the global economy $225 billion each year in lost labor income. The report claims that the effect is worse in South Asian nations, where lost labor income equals nearly 1% of GDP. It further added that premature death of working-age men and women lead to lost labour income for economies.

But indoor air quality is not just a health risk, it also impacts the productivity of employees, leaving a business dependent on a workforce that isn’t healthy, or retainable or agile. And there is research to prove that. Don’t believe us?

Here are 4 ways in which indoor air quality impacts businesses:

1. Sick leaves and absenteeism


The highest expenditure for any organization is its workforce, and sick leaves and absenteeism means they not only lose productivity but also suffer huge losses in paying for sick leaves.

Air pollution, especially particulate matter, is closely related to higher rates of sick leaves, as air pollution can cause new medical conditions or worsen the existing ones. In fact, new studies show that air pollution may be affecting every organ and virtually every cell in the human body, according to a comprehensive new global review.

Read Health Impact of PM2.5 and PM10

Another concept that needs a mention here is sick building syndrome (SBS). As the name suggests, sick building syndrome is a condition in which people in a building suffer from symptoms of illness or become infected with chronic disease from the building in which they work or reside. SBS is caused by VOCs(Volatile organic compounds) in the buildings like benzene, formaldehyde, etc. which are carcinogens. These may be produced from things found in every office like fresh paint, cleansers and disinfectants, room freshners, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.

The short term health effects include headache, nausea, acute eye, nose, throat irritation, worsening of asthma or loss of coordination. Exposure to VOC concentration found in our day to day life takes time for the symptoms to become noticeable, and by that time the damage has already begun. So by ignoring VOCs in your surroundings, you are putting your employees at risk for long term effects such as memory impairment, visual disorders, central nervous system related issues , kidney damage, liver damage, and even cancer.

Read VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) lurking in every home and how it's affecting our health.

High levels of humidity indoors can also encourage the growth of mould and dust mites; both of which are allergens and asthma triggers, thus affecting performance of employees.

Employees spend 8-10 hours indoors in the office space. By providing clean air in the indoor environment, organizations can significantly impact employee health positively and reduce sick leaves and absenteeism.

2. Productivity


Compiling evidence suggests that indoor air pollution is making your employees not only sick but also less productive.

Research indicates that poor indoor air quality negatively impacts job performance and productivity not only in a labour-intensive job but in an indoor desk job where workers have to sit in front of computers all day.

The study investigated the effect of pollution on worker productivity in the service sector by focusing on two call centers in China. Using precise measures of each worker’s daily output linked to daily measures of pollution and meteorology, they found out that higher levels of air pollution decrease worker productivity.

By analyzing the call-centre’s personnel records, researchers found a surprisingly robust relationship between daily air pollution levels and worker productivity. On average, a 10-unit increase in the Air Quality Index (AQI) led to a 0.35% decline in the number of calls handled by a Ctrip worker. That finding suggests that workers are 5%–6% more productive when air pollution levels are rated as good by the Environmental Protection Agency (AQI of 0–50) versus when they are rated as unhealthy (AQI of 150–200).

A further study talks about how high levels of CO2 make you sleepy at work hence reducing your ability to concentrate and be productive.

But how does this prove that improved air quality will have a positive impact on employees productivity? Improvements in overall air quality nationwide in the US have been estimated to have saved manufacturers $20 billion annually in productivity lost from 2000 to 2008, as per a research.

Another study found that employees working in certified green buildings (those that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout their life-cycle: from planning to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition) had 30% fewer headaches and respiratory complaint.The participants in the study also slept better at night, which was tracked using a wristband measuring sleep quality.

3. Decision-making


Researchers are conducting more and more studies on air pollution to discover its varying impacts on decision making skills and risk aversion of employees.

One such study performed by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health points towards the relation between air pollution and risk aversion. The study found a link between PM 2.5 and cognition, which affects risk taking behavior, and risk taking behavior affects stock returns.

“The effects are substantial” according to Matthew Neidell, PhD, professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia Mailman School. “Wall Street traders appear less willing to take risks on days with elevated air pollution. They shift away from the stocks on the S&P 500 and go to safer investments instead.”

A study by the Harvard Chan School of Public Health finds that there is a direct and negative impact of CO2 on our cognition and decision making skills. They found that on average, a typical participants' cognitive scores dropped 21% with a 400 ppm increase in CO2.

As per a further study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, higher indoor carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations have been associated with impaired work performance like decision-making and problem-solving, and increased health symptoms.

Read Why we should measure Carbon Dioxide

4. Employee retention


Finally poor indoor air quality adds to employee unhappiness and leads to challenges in employee retention.

A survey of people working in the tech industry found that close to 93% of employees would stay longer at a company that offered a healthier workplace. Which suggests that if employees feel that their health is at risk due to working conditions in their office space, they may not be likely to stay put with their company. On the other hand people are motivated to work for an organization that invests in their health and is perceived to care about them.

We saw the ways in which air pollution affects businesses. So, how do we deal with it? The answer is to create healthy buildings and office spaces. This requires focus on

  1. Monitoring Indoor Air quality.

    The only way to know how healthy your building is, is to monitor air quality in it. Monitoring key parameters like PM2.5, CO2, TVOC, temp, humidity can ensure that you have a good understanding of problem areas. This is an essential step to fixing them.

  2. Setting Indoor air quality goals.

    There are various standards for indoor air quality like Well building, RESET, ISHRAE, IGBC Arc etc. Pick a standard you feel comfortable with and set goals for your indoor air quality.

  3. Finding the right solution

    Based on the concerns found during monitoring, find the right solutions to fix the problems. Demand controlled ventilation is a great solution for high CO2 levels. HEPA filters in your HVAC systems can help with PM levels. UV and carbon filters can help with bacteria and VOCs. In addition eliminating use of or finding alternatives for products which can be local sources of PM2.5 or TVOC indoors like carpets, toxic paint, freshly polished furniture, room fresheners etc. can significantly improve air quality indoors. Finally plants can be a source of fresh air and also improve the aesthetics of your office space.

  4. Continuously monitoring and checking effectiveness of your solution

    Real-time, hyperlocal air quality monitoring enables corporates to monitor the air their employees breathe and track and measure the effectiveness of improvement efforts.

  5. Publicly sharing and displaying data to employees

    Making the indoor air quality data easily accessible to employees will provide transparency and accountability as well as drive employee happiness.

Many employers may think that air quality monitoring can initially be a bit costly but in the long run, it can save them from mighty costs incurred on lost productivity, employee turnover and health insurance.

So how healthy is your office building and what efforts are you making to ensure you are creating a healthy environment for your employees to work? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


About the author

Airveda team is a group of individuals working tirelessly with a mission to help people breathe well and live well.