Ever started to get sick on a Monday, suffered all week, then found yourself bouncing back on the weekend? Or seen the same in your employees or co-workers? Jokes about ‘being sick of work’ aside, there can be a very real reason for these workplace blues.
Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a recognised condition where the health of building occupants seems to be adversely affected by their time spent in the building. It does not just occur in damp, drafty or mouldy older buildings though. It can be just as prevalent in brand new buildings, where newly installed furnishings, carpets, paints, and other materials release toxic substances known as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).
How does SBS manifest? Often with headaches, sore throats, eye irritations and general discomfort. All these symptoms impact on productivity, so it’s an issue for business health as well as employee health.
A lack of fresh air from outside the building is often a factor; we need it for our respiratory system to function properly and it helps to dilute odours and VOCs. With modern HVAC systems, we can easily measure CO2 to see if oxygen levels are low (higher than normal CO2 levels indicate lower oxygen levels). In a workplace, depleted oxygen levels cause drowsiness and reduce mental ability, cognitive abilities, reasoning, and creativity. In other words, it impacts the human functions that allow a business to flourish.
Low Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) has even been linked to impaired learning in schools and universities. Fresh outdoor air is simply better for our brains. It is not surprising that there is a growing interest in, and market for, systems that improve IAQ.
Consider this: the ambient CO2 level on the street is typically 400 – 450 PPM (parts per million). In buildings with active ventilation systems, we start to increase outdoor air supplies when CO2 gets above 750 – 800 PPM, so buildings are inherently less healthy than the great outdoors. In a typical meeting room with an inadequate supply of outdoor air, CO2 rates can climb over 1,000 PPM. You might as well abandon the meeting, as error rates rise, and decision-making ability deteriorate. If it’s a training course – you’re wasting your time as no-one is learning anything in that environment.
Low IAQ is often an invisible workplace problem, at least until proper measures to detect it are taken. Your absenteeism rates can increase markedly, creating a significant business cost, without a clear understanding of why. Depending on the layout of your building, some areas may suffer worse IAQ – often meeting or training rooms where occupant density is higher.
Also, hard to measure in the workplace is productivity, one of the first casualties when your building is making employees unwell. You can monitor absence and errors, but these are not usually analysed and assessed to see if they are symptoms of a larger problem that is impacting on productivity. And productivity can have a huge impact, negative or positive, on business performance.
Most modern workplaces put a high priority on staff engagement and employee culture. Happy, engaged employees are great for productivity. But even the absolute best culture can be undermined by the invisible health risk of IAQ, whether the cause is inadequate outside air, VOCs or microbial contaminants such as mould and bacteria.
Where do you start, then, to clear the air and turn an unhealthy building into one that is healthy for business? With the design of your HVAC system. At the very least it should meet the NZ Building Code minimum standards in all workspaces, including meeting and training rooms.
Choosing a system that can operate on full outside air is a better option than one that simply recirculates room air. However, it needs to be one with the right controls designed in, that can monitor and adjust outside air levels. Bringing in outside air consumes energy; a system that only performs well under certain conditions is going to have high energy consumption.
Careful design will balance energy consumption against the tenant’s desired health and wellbeing outcomes. Informed by consultation with the end users, the design process should meet the tenant’s needs and expectations and be tailored to fit the workplace layout and the areas of high and low occupancy.
Any design should also be costed out over the whole of its life, not just viewed as an upfront capital cost. What is saved by underinvesting in the short term will pale in comparison to the higher running costs and health compromises a poorly designed HVAC system can contribute to over the life of a building.
Advances in HVAC technology and design knowledge provide plenty of options for creating a healthy building that functions as a healthy workplace. Control measures such as occupancy, CO2 and biological monitoring can be designed in. Better filtration systems can be installed, along with hygiene measures such as UV-C and anti-bacterial treatments. These are smart measures to make now, to ensure long term employee wellbeing and better business performance.