Poor air quality in the office might halve productivity


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It’s no secret that people nowadays spend most of their time indoors. In high-income countries, as many as 66% of jobs are in the service sector. If you fall in this category, you most likely work in an office environment, which might seem benign enough and boring, of course. However, not all office buildings are built the same. The various materials and furnishings can not only affect your performance at work, but also our health. A new study published in the journal  Environmental Health Reports quantified the effects of air quality and found employees working in environments with minimum pollutants in the air performed up to twice as better on cognitive tests.

Breathe in, breathe out

Depending on the kind of materials used to build and furnish an office space, the air inside might be contaminated with a variety of chemicals that leach  in gaseous form with both short- and long-term health effects. Then of course there’s the CO2 and nitrogen oxide leaching in from the busy streets below.

Some companies build their offices from the get go with a ‘green’ mindset, from employing materials that leach minimal volatile compounds, to energy efficiency measures, to filters that clean ambient air. If they’re not forced to, most developers aren’t that keen on introducing these measures, though. They might change their minds if they understand that air quality directly influences productivity, hence business.

For the study, 24 subjects were invited to go about their daily work routines in an office environment where the air quality was controlled for six days. These were work days in the middle of the week, since Mondays and Fridays are notorious for skewing the results of this sort of studies. In each day, the researchers changed the levels of carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds to reflect those that can leak from construction materials, paint, furniture, outside air and so on. The workers had no idea that the air they were breathing was changed.

Every afternoon, each participant took a test that assessed their cognitive skills, which were directly applicable to their work setting. The results were surprising. When the air inside contained less carbon dioxide and volatile compounds per usual, workers performed  61 percent better on cognitive tests. When the air inside contained minimal pollutants, the workers performed 101% better.

The researchers found that CO2 was “particularly important,” William Fisk, leader of the indoor environment group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, told Ars Technica. “For decades, nearly everyone had thought that carbon dioxide at the concentrations encountered in buildings had no effects on people,” he said.

It’s important to note that the results document short-term effects. It’s yet unclear if air quality affects cognitive skills and health in the long term. This is something Fisk and colleagues plan on investigating next.

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