Employee productivity can make or break a company. Outside distractions like social media and cell phone use instantly come to mind, but there’s an enormous threat inside the office that’s often misunderstood and overlooked: indoor air quality (IAQ). In fact, poor air quality is so detrimental to employee performance that a recent Harvard study found cognitive function greatly decreases when harmful pollutants inhabit the air (hbr.org/2017/03/research-stale-office-air-is-making-you-less-productive).
Carbon dioxide most commonly comes from the air we exhale and causes headaches and drowsiness, and high levels of the gas are directly correlated to low productivity and significantly lower brain function — something to consider in most offices, where the windows do not open and our day-to-day reality is being in meeting rooms with the doors closed. Everyone has felt the CO2 slump — yawning and being restless at 2 p.m. every afternoon. It’s most likely because of heightened carbon dioxide levels and it directly affects work performance. Another threat we’re faced with are Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), vapors that come from everyday items commonly found throughout the office (paint, carpeting, furniture, cleaning products) that cause a variety of health problems — from throat irritations to liver and kidney damage or cancer, depending on the level of exposure. Lastly, Radon is an invisible gas and is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and kills approximately 58 people per day in the United States. It comes from the ground and can enter the workplace through the pipes, sink, drains and cracks in a building´s foundation. While IAQ poses a serious health risk, especially in crowded workspaces, it is manageable if employers are armed with the right knowledge.
Maintaining healthy IAQ requires attention to the office’s ventilation system and outside air supply. Outside air is typically delivered through a building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, with a properly maintained filter that decreases pollutants. However, many HVAC systems require modifications and should be inspected to ensure they are working properly. While maintaining the system is an excellent first step, air quality fluctuates and should be monitored daily with the use of a smart indoor air quality monitor. When looking for the right device, every employer should consider the pollutants that are being monitored (from radon to CO2), ease of the technology and remote monitoring options. While some of the options for maintaining good IAQ may seem pricey, the Harvard study mentioned above estimates that the productivity benefits from doubling the ventilation rates are $6,500 per person per year — plus, the benefit of improving workplace happiness is priceless.
Eyvind Birkenes is CEO of Airthings, a Norway-based tech company that develops and manufactures both professional and consumer-facing technologies that help people monitor and analyze radon and other dangerous indoor air pollutants