Something in the air – the impact of high CO2 levels

The link between environment and productivity is regularly covered in articles relating to the workplace. Designing the office to complement productivity has become something of an art, with more and more businesses taking the significance of colour, agile spaces and specific design factors on board in a bid to promote wellbeing, and secure higher rates of employee retention, while improving staff performance and results.

It’s always worth stripping back to the basics though, when embracing this topic, and focusing on what can make a fundamental difference to our working day, starting with the very air that we breathe…

If we look back for signs of a connection between the physical office space and productivity, it’s noteworthy that designers began making buildings more airtight in the 70s, which is when indoor carbon dioxide started to become a problem.

With some workers reporting feeling ill in these buildings and a perceivable drop in levels of productivity as a result, a relationship between the two was identified.

Sick building syndrome

The term ‘sick building syndrome’ was coined to cover unhealthy factors in the working environment, such as poor ventilation, and the affect these factors were having on the workers. The correlation between time spent in a building and symptoms such as headaches and feeling unwell for no apparent reason falls under the banner of this syndrome.

Heating, air conditioning and ventilation flaws have been pinpointed as the most likely contributors to sick building syndrome syndrome over the years, along with types of building materials and a lack of adequate fresh air supply.

Exposure to high levels of carbon dioxide can leave individuals feeling faint, dizzy and breathless so it’s important from a health point of view that levels in the workplace are regularly checked and monitored.

CO2 levels

Facilities management expert, EMCOR UK recently funded a practical study into UK indoor office environments. The findings of this study confirmed that worker performance declines when carbon dioxide levels are high and temperatures are too warm or too cold. Workers were able to work much faster in lower carbon dioxide concentrations as oppose to environments where high carbon dioxide levels had an adverse effect.

The research, led by academics at Oxford Brookes University and LCMB Building Performance, indicates that, with lower carbon dioxide levels, workers can become far more productive. Given that, those behind the study are calling for businesses to regularly test the quality of their indoor air environments. It certainly makes sense.

Opening the window

A common misconception is that overly warm offices lead to stuffiness and so air conditioning is cranked up as a result. The stuffiness is, in fact, due to high levels of carbon dioxide, which is a specific issue in newer offices where windows have been sealed and are limited as to how far they can be opened in order to address energy efficiency concerns.

Such misconceptions limit fresh air intake; a problem which is exacerbated when workers are office bound for eight hours a day, and longer, five days a week.

With UK productivity running behind a number of other European countries, we need to address the issue of office air quality and take advantage of the technology and innovations to measure carbon dioxide levels and make the necessary adjustments.

… And, in the meantime, we can always open a window !