Press Coverage: Is sick building syndrome making an unwelcome comeback?

Remark Group’s latest piece in Facilities Management Journal is here.

Sick building syndrome (SBS) is largely believed to be a phenomenon of the nineties but shock new findings in a survey carried out by intelligent business technology experts the Remark Group show that it may well be making an unwelcome return.

Remark Group’s ‘Air Quality and Wellbeing at Work’ 2019 survey of over 1,000 UK office workers, has revealed that 86 per cent get headaches at work, with almost a quarter of people (23 per cent) saying they get them every day. Worryingly, nearly all office workers (91 per cent) report that they suffer from tiredness or lethargy at work, with 41 per cent saying they suffer every day.

Other symptoms are also rife, such as dry, itchy or watery eyes (78 per cent), dry throat (76 per cent) and itchy or irritated skin (70 per cent) and only 11 per cent of people describe their sleep quality as good during the working week, with a quarter reporting that their sleep quality was poor.

Shockingly, 80 per cent think that poor indoor air quality could be having a negative impact on their health with the same amount reporting it could be having a similar effect on their productivity at work. Furthermore, 57 per cent think air quality is affecting their mental/physical health.

Environmental psychologist and workplace wellbeing expert Dr Nigel Oseland commented: “Whilst sick building syndrome is still spoken about, it is not as prevalent as it was in the 1990s, when it made the headlines. Office wellbeing is of paramount importance and it is clear that a person’s work environment can impact significantly, not only on their health and wellbeing, but also on their performance.

“It is therefore crucial that today’s businesses focus on creating healthy buildings which encourage wellness and productivity. They can do so, by monitoring air quality in the office and embracing new technologies to ensure that the work environment promotes workplace wellbeing.”

He added: “I am shocked by the results of this survey, but not entirely surprised. Whilst we are producing some great-looking, modern offices we need to pay more attention to basic human needs, to the so-called hygiene factors, such as good indoor air quality, temperature control and noise reduction. The various disciplines within the workplace industry need a concerted effort for a marked step change from sick buildings to healthy buildings. Everyone has the right to work in a healthy workplace.”

UK offices have a strong culture of meetings, with almost 90 per cent of people having up to 10 per week and 72 per cent spending up to 11 hours in meetings every week – 34 per cent of these meetings taking place in rooms without windows.

Nearly 90 per cent of office workers say they find themselves nodding off or losing concentration in meetings, whilst one in four of us say meeting rooms aren’t facilitating productivity or collaboration, and half of people leave meetings thinking they weren’t successful.

On its website, the NHS refers to SBS as the name for symptoms you only get while in a particular building, usually an office. Symptoms of SBS get worse the longer you’re in a particular building and get better after you leave. It states that people can ease symptoms themselves, by opening windows to improve ventilation, reducing workplace stress, taking regular screen breaks and going outside for fresh air during lunchtime and breaks.

The Remark Group conducted research amongst its own employees to determine whether or not poor indoor air quality affected an employee’s productivity and/or wellbeing. Results showed a considerable drop in productivity levels when windows were closed, which coincided with the rise in CO2 levels.

Penelope Harrall of Remark Group commented: “Remark’s office is located outside the city centre and close to open space, so it’s interesting to see that even here we have an issue with indoor air quality.

“Today’s office environments can drain happiness, health and even productivity but ensuring that air quality is regulated can reduce symptoms such as headaches, fatigue and eye irritation, while increasing productivity and general wellbeing.

“The sensors we used monitored nine different elements, with the most important being humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide. By using air quality sensors, you can maintain the right level of air quality and enable all employees to benefit from a comfortable working environment.”

The survey also found only half of people (47 per cent) have temperature control in their office, 30 per cent of people don’t have access to open space near their office, 30 per cent won’t open windows as they are worried about exterior air quality, and 56 per cent are worried about air quality in the area in which they work.

There are multiple solutions to poor indoor air quality. For some companies, simply opening the windows and adding more plants into the office is a great solution. Air purifiers can assist in removing contaminants from the air in a room to improve air quality. There are also living plant walls that combine the benefits of nature with technology.