Sick building syndrome: Does your office make you sick?

In today’s competitive economic environment, having a productive and efficient workplace is fundamental to business growth. But employees taking time off work due to illness will always be a major problem. Absenteeism costs UK businesses an estimated £36 billion each year.

shutterstock_129703145Low staff morale is often linked to high levels of absenteeism, but alarm bells should be ringing when seemingly happy employees are repeatedly calling in sick. Don’t assume that they’re all taking duvet days or pulling sickies after one too many the night before – your office could be a victim of sick building syndrome.

What is it?

Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a range of symptoms thought to be linked to spending time in a particular building, often an office environment, but with no specific cause being detectable. The most common symptoms include headache, nausea, respiratory problems, skin irritation and fatigue. Symptoms can occur on their own or simultaneously and can vary day to day.

Why does it happen?

Researchers have attempted to identify the cause of SBS since the 1970s, and while no single cause has yet been pinpointed, health experts believe a combination of factors can contribute to the illness.

Poor air quality and a lack of ventilation have most frequently been linked to SBS, particularly in new or remodelled buildings.

Many modern office blocks have not been designed to effectively circulate air. This can lead to the build-up of airborne toxins and contaminants in the atmosphere and increase the spread of germs. The air inside a commercial building can sometimes be up to 100 times more polluted than the air outside.

Other health experts argue that factors such as poor heating and lighting are also to blame.

Unnecessary heating and air conditioning or a fluctuating office temperature as a result of both is unsettling for the human body. In addition, if the workplace is not suitably lit, visual disturbance can occur. Inadequate illumination including conventional fluorescent lighting can cause glare or flicker on visual display units which is likely to cause eyestrain or headaches.

What can you do to prevent it?

Open plan offices are the best way to maximise natural light. It is important to utilise natural light where possible in order to avoid headaches and eyestrain caused by artificial sources. However, open plan layouts that include coworking space are prone to outbreaks of illness. A study found that the number of sick days taken by employees was positively correlated to the number of inhabitants working in a given space. Occupants of open offices were found to have 62% more sick days than those in cellular offices.

When seeking an office there are things to look out for in order to avoid your building become a victim of SBS. If looking for flexible space, choose a serviced office that boasts excellent natural light like the ‘green’ Mitre Building in Greenwich. This will help improve working conditions for your staff, and the large windows will improve ventilation. It is hugely important to choose an office that is fully air-conditioned to maintain air quality.

Another simple way to improve air quality is to introduce live plants to the office. Plants absorb toxins from the air and release oxygen back into the atmosphere. A NASA study into the air purification capacities of plants found that certain varieties not only take in carbon dioxide but can also absorb harmful organic compounds commonly found in offices such as benzene and formaldehyde.

Replacing water stained floor and ceiling tiles, regularly vacuuming floors, dusting surfaces and promptly removing garbage are all preventative measures that will help your office.

Having fresh, healthy and efficient employees can only be a good thing for the productivity of a business. Following these precautionary steps will replenish your depleted workforce and turn persistent absenteeism into a thing of the past.