Toxic offices are killing your performance at work

Sleepy worker
Lucy Goodchild van Hilten

If you’ve ever had the feeling your brain’s just not working as fast as it could be, you might want to check out the air in your office: new research suggests poor air quality could be killing your brainpower at work.

Offices have long been blamed for “sick building syndrome” – a range of symptoms, including headaches, nausea and fatigue, that are thought to be caused by poor air quality in buildings.

A new study, led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the US, reveals that the air quality in your office has a measurable – and significant – effect on your cognitive ability.

We spend a staggering 90% of our time indoors, so air quality can have a big impact on our health. Carbon dioxide levels vary depending on ventilation and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are vaporous chemicals that come from air fresheners and furnaces, for example, can be found in most indoor environments. New approaches to designing sustainable buildings that have better air quality are tackling the problem, but few of our existing buildings meet their “green” requirements.

For the new study, the team monitored the cognitive abilities of 24 workers over the course of six full workdays in an environmentally controlled office. The researchers varied the levels of VOCs in the air, corresponding to a “conventional” office (high VOC concentration), a “Green” office (low VOC concentration) and a “Green+” office (high outdoor ventilation).

The team then looked at the effect each environment had on the workers, using the Strategic Management Simulation (SMS) software tool, which tests decision making in nine areas. The workers, who included designers, engineers, creative marketing professionals and managers, had to take part in a simulation for the test, for example acting as the mayor of a township or as an emergency coordinator.

The results revealed that conventional offices can really put the brakes on your brain power: on average, cognitive scores were 61% higher in the “Green” environment and 101% higher in the “Green+” environment. For some tests, such as the strategy test, which involves planning, prioritising and carrying out sequence actions, cognitive function in the Green+ environment was almost 300% higher than that in the conventional environment.

The researchers varied the levels of carbon dioxide in the office, and found it also impeded cognitive function, independently of VOC levels. In seven of the nine cognitive tests, higher carbon dioxide levels coincided with lower cognitive function.

It’s not just offices that could be slowing down your thinking. In their paper, the researchers suggest other buildings should be investigated in the same way:

This study was designed to reflect indoor office environments in which large numbers of the population work every day. These exposures should be investigated in other indoor environments, such as homes, schools and airplanes, where decrements in cognitive function and decision-making could have significant impacts on productivity, learning and safety.

So the next time you’re feeling mentally sluggish at work, it might be time to take your laptop outside, or at least open a window.

Featured image:normalityrelief/Flickr

 

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