Air Quality Matters
As new research uncovers the bottom-line benefits of clean air in the workplace, experts say the time is right for HR to make the argument that the benefits of providing a healthy indoor environment far outweigh the incremental costs.
By Maura C. Ciccarelli
All that hot air you and your co-workers exhale -- in the form of carbon dioxide -- could be negatively affecting your work performance if your workplace doesn't have good indoor air quality.
That's according to researchers who in the last few years have begun assessing the influence that CO2 and other indoor gases have on cognitive brain function, i.e., decision-making performance.
The most recent study, entitled, "The impact of working in a green certified building on cognitive function and health," was published in Building and Environment journal's March 2017 issue by longtime collaborators from Harvard, SUNY Upstate Medical School and Syracuse University. They found that workers from a sampling of 10 buildings with the highest Green certifications (called Green+) had 26.4 percent higher cognitive function scores, better environmental perceptions and 30-percent fewer environment-related symptoms ("sick building syndrome") than those in high-performing, non-certified buildings.
In an earlier study, workers took the tests over a six-day period in simulated office space where the researchers controlled the environmental factors. On average, cognitive scores were 61 percent higher on the "Green building" day and 101 percent higher on the two "Green+ building" days than on the "conventional" building day.
In both studies, participants took a strategic management simulation test, a scenario-based assessment similar to what is used to measure the problem-solving abilities of job applicants or the strategic effectiveness of leaders. How exactly does poor air quality affect productivity? One of the authors, Usha Satish, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at SUNY-Upstate Medical University, says, "A lack of ventilation causes a syndrome of fatigue such as sleepiness and tiredness, which . . . would impact attention spans."
Joseph G. Allen, another researcher and lead writer for the studies, is a former "sick building" inspector who is now assistant professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment.
"I think there's an important connection for HR to [make] the argument throughout the organization that the health benefits far outweigh the incremental costs of providing a healthy indoor environment," Allen says.
Poor indoor-air-quality problems date back to the energy crisis of the 1970s, when builders began sealing buildings to improve energy costs. That trend led to health crises including sick building syndrome and epidemics of infectious illnesses. To avoid problems, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, the organization that sets engineering standards for HVAC systems, has made minimum air-quality recommendations to avoid such problems.
"No matter what we do we will always have some sources of indoor air pollutants in the indoor environment," says Bjarne Olesen, president-elect of ASHRAE. "The main source is in fact people themselves."
Improving the indoor environment is now a higher priority than energy use, given that paying salaries and insurance for employees is "100 times higher than the cost of energy for heating, cooling and ventilation in an office," he notes, adding: "I think building owners and employers are starting to realize buildings are for people and not for saving energy."
So how can indoor air quality be improved? Olesen says the simplest ways are to increase air ventilation through the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and to use building materials, furnishings and paints that have low-emission volatile organic compounds that contribute to poor air quality.
The technology behind HVAC systems themselves is also being improved to balance indoor air quality with energy efficiency, says Udi Meirav, CEO and founder of Boston-based enVerid Systems, which develops technology to absorb carbon dioxide and other airborne contaminants to improve air quality.
"There has been a lot more history around air quality as it affects people's comfort, well-being, long-term health, and things like absenteeism and sick days," Meirav says. "CO2, which is ubiquitous, was thought to be relatively benign. More and more people are beginning to take note that this is important and we'd better be paying attention to it."
When it comes to renovations or new facility development, Allen says HR should be at the C-suite table, offering the cost benefits of improved well-being, problem-solving and productivity that result from improving air quality. The researchers published a 2015 paper that calculated the economic impact of improving facilities' indoor air quality, which estimated that it costs $40 per person annually to double a building's ventilation rate. However, this "energy penalty" doesn't account for the increase in productivity enabled by the improved ventilation and, as a result, better indoor air quality. The study estimated that employers would get a $6,500 increase from the 8-percent increase in productivity enabled by better air.
"The big picture take-away," Allen says, "is that when you include health in the calculus, the benefits far exceed the cost of providing a healthy indoor environment because you're directly impacting the most expensive cost of the building, [which is] human health."
The corporate environmental responsibility trend that includes pursuing LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council has the added benefit of improving productivity, notes Kelly Worden, project manager for Health Research at the U.S. Green Building Council in Washington.
"Productivity and improved human experience are well-established drivers for LEED certification," Worden says. "Behavioral psychology research has found that in our workplaces, companies that adopt more rigorous environmental standards are associated with higher labor productivity -- an average of 16 percent higher -- than non-green firms. LEED-certified buildings are also demonstrating increased recruitment and retention rates and increased productivity benefits for employers.
Worden notes that about 2.5 million employees work in LEED buildings, with numbers expected to exceed 21 million by 2030, resulting in an economic value of $90 billion from increased productivity. In addition, she says researchers have established a definitive link between improved lighting design and a 27 percent reduction in the incidence of headaches, which accounts for 0.7 percent of the overall cost of employee health insurance. This equals approximately $70 per employee annually.
Framing indoor air quality as part of an employee well-being assessment means it has a positive impact on engagement levels, says Emmett Seaborn, managing director of Willis Towers Watson and co-leader of its workforce effectiveness and productivity group, based in Stanford, Conn.
He explains that physical well-being, which includes a healthy work environment, is just as important for engagement and empowerment as emotional/social and financial wellness.
"A healthier work environment produces a healthier workforce as well as better financial outcomes," he adds. "When you measure engagement, which is at the heart of what they are doing, [you have to ask] does the work environment enable them to deliver, through ergonomics, lighting, air quality -- and is the workforce energized?"
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