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The Productivity and Health Benefits of Improving Office Air Quality

May 8, 2018 | by Alexandra Schaffer

Imagine you’ve been sitting for hours straight underneath artificial lighting. You’re breathing recycled air and feeling a bit parched. A headache is creeping on, and you can’t stop rubbing at your dry eyes. And, to make it all worse, you’re pretty sure that cold you just got rid of last week found its way back to you again. Where are you?

If you guessed “airplane,” you’re not alone. But the truth is that there’s an even more common location where poor air quality impacts your health that’s not en route to your next business trip or vacation: it’s your office space.

Office wellness programs are trending, yet so much buzz is focused on incentives and hip group activities that it’s easy to forget about the most basic thing we do every day that contributes to our health — breathing. Investing in the air quality of your office space will not only boost your team’s overall wellness but will also benefit your company’s bottom line by improving productivity. Keep reading to learn why transforming your office’s air quality should be a top priority.

The Worst Offenders

The EPA defines “Indoor Air Quality” (or IAQ) as “the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants” and ranks indoor air pollutants as one of the top five environmental risks to public health. The immediate effects of poor IAQ can include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and irritation in your eyes, nose, and throat area. While avoiding those symptoms is motivation enough to pursue ways to improve the air quality in your office space, the potential long-term effects of exposure to poor IAQ are even more startling and can include respiratory disease, heart disease, and cancer.

So what causes the poor air quality in your office? The worst offenders are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are found in everyday office items like paper towels, printing inks, window cleaners, dry erase markers, and new furniture. These VOCs include trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and ammonia. Other pollutants, from tobacco smoke to allergens, get carried in by the people who come and go on a daily basis.

Let’s go over some items in the office that you may not suspect to be contributing to poor IAQ.

The building itself

The majority of people today spend approximately 90% of their time indoors. As this percentage has increased, so has the number of modern buildings that are virtually airtight, effectively trapping VOCs inside to be endlessly re-circulated.

Your HVAC system

Yes, HVAC systems are an essential technology to maintaining office air quality, but when not cleaned regularly or adequately they can become a source of air pollution.

Air fresheners

Placing air fresheners in the bathroom or kitchen areas of an office is a quick and easy fix to a smelly problem. You might be surprised to know that some plug-in air fresheners emit up to 20 different VOCs! Search for fragrance-free, non-toxic air fresheners, or when possible simply open a window.

The carpet

Your shoes carry you from home to work, but they also carry whatever you may have walked through on the way into the office. If your office is carpeted, those various particles will find a cozy home among the carpet fibers. Unless you happen to work at an office with a no-shoes policy, you’ll want to make sure your carpets are cleaned using a vacuum with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter.

Fresh Air by Numbers

In 2015, the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University conducted a double-blind study to uncover the connection between indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity — and the results were remarkable.

Led by Harvard’s Joseph Allen, the study observed workers in a range of non-green (standard), green (low VOCs), and “green+” (double ventilation) working conditions and found that employee performance in the green environment was nearly 60% better than those tested in the non-green environment. With double the ventilation in the “green+” environment, the cognitive performance of the same employees increased by over 100% compared to when they completed tasks in the standard office environment.

Here are a few of the other impressive statistics from the study relating fresh air to employee performance.

  • Crisis response: employees scored 97% higher in green conditions and 131% higher in green+ conditions.
  • Strategy: employees scored 183% higher in green conditions and 288% higher in green+ conditions.
  • Information usage: employees scored 172% higher in green conditions and 299% higher in green+ conditions.

With double the ventilation in the “green+” environment, the cognitive performance of the same employees increased by over 100% compared to when they completed tasks in the standard office environment.

Participants in the study also reported significantly less of the short-term effects of poor IAQ. With results showing such high numbers, it might seem like a lot of work and money needs to go into improving the air quality of your office space. The reality is that simple steps will drastically impact your office’s current air conditions for the better, improving work conditions and performance of your employees.

Simple Steps to Improve Office Air Quality

“In most buildings, managers can take action immediately. The first step is to look at your air quality indicators and see whether there’s room to improve,” says Allen in an article he wrote for Harvard Business Review about the study.

Allen reveals that building managers often wildly overestimate the cost of improving air quality through higher ventilation rates. His estimate? “The cost of doubling ventilation rates would be less than $40 per person per year. In most cities, it’s even lower. When energy-efficient ventilation systems are used, the cost would be $1–$10 per person per year.”

Research also shows that investing $40 per employee each year for improved IAQ can result in as much as a $6500 increase in employee productivity. Investing in a few products — and even some free IAQ-positive habits — will earn you money in the long run.

Dehumidifiers

According to WebMD, keeping the humidity between 30% and 50% is essential to keep dust mites, mold, and other allergens out of the office.

Air Purifier

One of the best ways to remove office-related VOCs from the air is by installing an air purifier, preferably with a HEPA filter and over 90% efficiency. Just be sure you clean and change the filter on a regular basis.

Natural, regular cleaning

Speaking of cleaning, switching to natural cleaners without toxins like ammonia can make a huge difference in the air quality of your office. Whether or not you have a cleaning staff, keep regular cleaning of the HVAC system, air vents, ceiling fans, and carpets on the calendar to prevent the buildup of allergens like dust and pollen, among others.

Open a window

If your office has windows that open, open them when weather permits to increase ventilation.

Air out new furniture

As much as possible, try to bring new furniture into the office over weekends and increase ventilation in the office for at least a week to counter the effect of the initial off-gassing of VOCs.

Get a Himalayan salt lamp

Best suited for desk decor, Himalayan salt lamps are natural ionic air purifiers that neutralize toxins in the air.

Go green with office plants

Another great way to improve air quality in the office is to literally “greenify” with plants. As plants perform photosynthesis, they absorb toxic agents in the air in addition to carbon dioxide. Plants and their soil also offer a home to a variety of microorganisms that contribute to cleaner air, too.

In addition to contributing to a boost in your employees’ productivity, being near plants has also been shown to make people happier. Pick a couple of the plants below, and you’re one step closer to having happy, productive employees breathing clean air in a beautified office space. Many are even endorsed as air-cleaning champions by NASA!

Fern

Both Boston ferns and Kimberley Queen ferns are excellent at removing formaldehyde and xylene from the air.

Spider Plant

A houseplant favorite due to their resiliency and ability to survive infrequent watering, spider plants also absorb formaldehyde and xylene as well as carbon monoxide from the air.

Aloe Vera

Another plant that is very easy to care for, Aloe Vera is an efficient benzene processor, a VOC often found in paint and certain cleaning solutions.

Ivy

English ivy will give your office an elegant touch when displayed in a hanging basket or high up on top of a bookshelf or kitchen cupboards. A powerhouse at removing formaldehyde from the air, it also is useful for eliminating xylene, benzene, and trichloroethylene.

Peace Lily

In addition to all the VOCs mentioned so far, the peace lily will also reduce the amount of ammonia in the air of your office space, which is especially important if you haven’t made the switch to non-toxic cleaning products.

Palm

Dwarf date palm, parlor palm, and broadleaf lady palm grow nice and tall, and are excellent choices to place around furniture that might still be going through the off-gassing process.

Breathe Easy

Workplace wellness is here to stay, and one of the best ways you can support overall employee wellness is by prioritizing clean air in the office. A combination of the simple and affordable solutions offered above will dramatically improve your office air quality, leading to significant productivity and health benefits for your team.

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