Hard to focus? Poor air quality could be why

New research further proves it impacts employee performance

December 07, 2021

With employees around the world going back to the office, there’s a renewed emphasis on healthy buildings, defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as spaces that support “the physical, psychological, and social health and wellbeing of people.”

And while the filtration of droplets that can spread COVID-19 has been an increased area of focus, the case behind ensuring the air is clean — not just of virus particles but also of pollutants — so that employees perform better cognitively is stronger than ever. A new study further proves that poor indoor air quality causes impairment to cognitive functions, including the ability to concentrate and process information.

The study followed 302 office workers for 12 months in six countries: the United States, Britain, China, India, Mexico and Thailand. The scientists measured ventilation and indoor air quality in the buildings. Then they measured the participants’ performance on cognitive tests taken on an app during the workday.

The study found that the office workers in buildings with the poorest indoor air quality tended to perform worse on the tests. It is a strong addition to a growing body of knowledge supporting the concept that workers are more productive and happier in buildings that have good air quality thanks to both monitoring and filtration. And healthy employees equal successful companies. In fact, a Harvard University study estimates that a business will see a $6,500 per employee, per year increase in employee productivity when they ensure their office buildings are healthy per the WHO standard.

“[Building health] is definitely higher on the agenda of building managers and landlords, who are now benchmarking factors like air and water quality, moisture and noise that directly impact health and wellbeing,” says Andre Bothma, Growth Lead, EMEA, JLL Spark.


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Productivity and monitoring

Studies show an average productivity loss of roughly 6 percent for every 10 parts per billion (ppb) increase in ozone concentrations. The effects of poor indoor air quality and worker productivity can be measured by absenteeism, decreased worker productivity and increased economic costs.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), coined by the WHO, occurs when building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, and it directly increases absenteeism. In the U.S., an estimated 64 million office workers and teachers are at risk of suffering from SBS, according to the WHO. In the U.S., adults miss approximately 14.5 million workdays due to asthma, according to the American Lung Association, which can be triggered by poor indoor quality. There are also significant healthcare costs associated with SBS.

The first step when it comes to addressing air quality is to measure it. Adoption of technology that measures air quality is on the rise, including airborne particle monitoring, essential due to the pandemic. It’s reasonable to expect a rapid decrease in the price of the technology as broad-spectrum monitoring normalizes, according to Raefer Wallis, speaking at MIT’s last World Real Estate Forum. His company, GIGA, combines the development of building standards with cloud technology to increase the accessibility and impact of healthy buildings.

“Airborne particle monitoring used to be about dust and humidity … now the ability to measure waterborne droplets has really come to the forefront,” he said. “

Advancing technology, such as Envio, Iconics or JLL's IntelliCommand, enables facilities managers to monitor building health in real time. Sensors that monitor air flow and room temperature are managed by the platforms and raise the alarm on any issues immediately.

“It’s taking facilities management away from being reactive to pro-active and predictive which is critical for building managers right now,” says Bothma.

Retro-commissioning – a process that involves systemic evaluations of a building’s HVAC and other systems – can also help identify opportunities to improve air quality through filtration. But that process also has an added benefit: it’s a new way to cut energy consumption.

These actions can effectively reduce a building’s environmental footprint — but they do more than that, says Cynthia Curtis, Senior Vice President, Sustainability, JLL.

“Emissions are at the heart of it all in terms of urgency,” she says. But in the broader context, “sustainability is about taking a holistic approach where human health and productivity are foundational to the mix.”

In other words, improvements accelerated by the pandemic should ultimately lead to healthier occupants who will be happier and more engaged.

“We spend so much of our time indoors,” said Dr. Joe Allen, one of the authors of the latest research, during the JLL webinar. “If we get this right in terms of energy use and sustainability, moving forward we can really improve the human condition. It’s not overstating it to say the decisions we are making now will dictate our collective health for generations.”

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