Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) directly impacts health and productivity in the workplace. Indoor air pollution may not be visible, but the symptoms of it are diminished cognitive function, poor concentration and reduced productivity. Employers need to understand the risks of poor indoor air quality and the steps they can take to improve it.
There are several ways poor indoor air quality in the workplace can directly affect employees’ wellness. The U.S. EPA reports indoor air pollution can cause headaches, dizziness, fatigue, respiratory illnesses, heart disease and even cancer.
In addition to bodily illnesses, poor indoor air quality also significantly impacts employees’ productivity at work. Studies have found a few key conditions caused by indoor air pollution that closely correlate to workplace performance.
Reduced cognitive function
A 2021 study by Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers identified a connection between the cognitive function of in-office employees and workplace indoor air quality. The study included employees across multiple countries, age groups and professions. They tracked levels of indoor air pollution over time and employees were given a short test periodically throughout the day.
The results of this study revealed that when indoor air pollution was higher, employees showed lower cognitive function. They took longer to respond to questions on the tests, answered fewer questions correctly and needed more help to focus. These symptoms may not be obvious at first glance, but the Harvard study revealed a clear pattern across numerous offices and industries.
Higher rates of headaches and fatigue
In addition to diminished cognitive function, employees can also suffer from increased rates of headaches and fatigue due to poor IAQ. Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a condition that causes illness triggered by the poor indoor air quality in a particular building. People can tell when they are suffering from SBS if their symptoms improve when they go outside.
Sick Building Syndrome causes headaches and fatigue, as well as flu and cold-like symptoms. As a result, employees may even be prompted to take a sick day, thinking they have a cold, only to feel better once they get home. Reduced productivity in employees who suffer from SBS accounts for a large portion of this estimated economic impact.
Stress and distraction
Poor indoor air quality can increase stress levels and distraction in employees, resulting in poor productivity. While many factors can cause stress in the workplace, poor indoor air quality only worsens things. This isn’t just caused by air pollution, but also poor temperature and humidity management.
Thermal discomfort occurs when indoor temperatures are too high or low. Of course, different people have different temperatures they prefer to work in — some like their workspace to lean cold, while others prefer it warm. Additionally, different body types adapt to indoor temperatures differently. However, office managers are generally recommended to keep indoor temperatures between 68° and 76° Fahrenheit.
When the workplace strays outside this ideal temperature range, employees are more likely to experience stress and distractibility from thermal discomfort. Humidity can exaggerate indoor temperatures, as well. High humidity can worsen excessive heat and increase air pollution, potentially causing mold to accumulate in ventilation systems.
How to improve indoor air quality in the workplace
What can employers do to improve indoor air quality and promote higher productivity? There are a few easy tactics that will help keep the air clean in the office and protect employees from the side effects of indoor air pollution.
Practice good HVAC maintenance
The first step to cleaner air in the workplace is good HVAC maintenance habits. The HVAC system plays a critical role in indoor air quality, so it can be employers’ greatest ally when it comes to minimizing indoor air pollution.
The HVAC system removes three core air pollution types — particulate, gaseous and biological matter. Particulate pollutants include things like dust, debris or dirt. Gaseous pollution contains chemical compounds in the air, such as ozone and carbon monoxide. Biological matter includes viruses, bacteria and fungal organisms.
Employers must ensure they keep their HVAC systems in pristine condition throughout the year. Make a schedule and set reminders for changing the filters in the HVAC system, ideally every three months. It is also a good idea to hire an HVAC inspector to check the whole system a few times a year, investigating for potential hazards inside the HVAC system, such as mold or debris buildup.
Increase IAQ visibility
Arguably the biggest challenge to improving indoor air quality is detecting indoor air pollution. Most air pollutants aren’t visible to the naked eye. Plus, many of the symptoms caused by indoor air pollution can be attributed to other potential causes, such as stress due to a tight deadline or fatigue caused by missing a cup of coffee.
Improving indoor air quality relies on increasing the visibility of air pollution and an excellent tool for accomplishing this is IoT sensors. There are smart sensors available today that can autonomously monitor indoor air quality throughout the office. Managers can conveniently view data from the sensors in an app so they can keep an eye on it throughout the day.
Air quality sensors will reveal what the eye can’t see, allowing employers to direct their efforts to improve air quality toward the specific challenges present in their workplace.
Manage moisture and humidity
Finally, it is key to keep moisture and humidity levels under control. As mentioned above, humidity can complicate existing temperature discomfort and potentially create biological air pollution in the form of mold or fungus.
Humidity levels vary significantly from one location to another around the world. Offices in the midwest United States will have less difficulty with high humidity compared to an office in Alabama, Hawaii or many Southern hemispheres. So, humidity management needs will vary.
However, a few key tactics to manage humidity in any office space exist. For example, fans and open windows can reduce indoor moisture. Good ventilation maintenance will also help the HVAC system manage humidity efficiently on its own — another reason to prioritize its health throughout the year. Additionally, make sure the office building itself gets a maintenance check-up regularly. High indoor humidity and moisture levels can be caused or worsened by moisture leaking through the roof, building envelope or plumbing.
Ensuring healthy air in the workplace
Poor indoor air quality directly impacts employees’ health and productivity, leading to headaches, poor concentration and cognitive function, fatigue and illness. Employers need to be aware of these risks and take steps to maintain clean and healthy air in the office. Good HVAC maintenance, IoT air quality monitoring and humidity management can ensure employees breathe easily on the job.