Creating Well Workplaces & Curing Sick Building Syndrome in the Face of a Pandemic (Part One)
In a post-Covid world, how we work and how we assess the suitability of our workplaces has completely changed. The common challenges that filled Boardroom meetings prior to the pandemic outbreak have been replaced by increased time spent worrying about employee safety, wellbeing and how teams might once again be able to work together in one location safely.
The truth is – cleaning and building maintenance teams have found themselves at the heart of the company’s new number one mission – keeping staff and customers safe in their premises. Cleaning and facilities management has gone from being considered a mundane essential, to being of the utmost business (and sometimes now life) critical importance.
While most people have heard of sick building syndrome (SBS), not that many organisations have ever considered how it might be affecting their productivity and ultimately profits, or what they can do about it.
The CV19 crisis provides an opportunity for leaders to reflect on the impact their buildings have on their workforce and brings a stark reminder of the responsibility we have to protect one another from infection and illness.
What is SBS?
Sick building syndrome (SBS) is the name of a condition that is believed to be caused by people being in a certain building or other type of enclosed space. It is often attributed to poor indoor air quality (IAQ) however; the precise cause is unknown. In many instances it is a combination of interrelated factors that cause the symptoms as we’ll go on to explain below.
In 1986, the World Health Organisation coined the phrase and over the following decades, along with our desire to make buildings more efficient both financially and in terms of energy, we’ve actually seen an increase in the number of cases of SBS despite raised awareness.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, poor IAQ can be found in c. 30% of even new and recently renovated buildings.
In 2019, The Central Office of Public Interest launched a citizen-funded tool that rates pollution levels by address through a system similar to the energy ratings that properties are given. See AddressPollution.org for more info.
Other names for this condition include Environmentally Induced Illness (EI), Tight Building Syndrome (TBS) and Building-Related Illness.
All relate to a condition that is caused by the building and working environment and symptoms of diagnosable illnesses can be attributed directly to airborne environmental contaminants.
SBS a silent and invisible problem and is often overlooked for these reasons. It has a visible impact however – driving up absenteeism, presenteeism, poor productivity and decision making and elevated workplace stress. This is not good for any workforce, let alone during a pandemic where health and mental wellbeing all impact one’s susceptibility.
What’s the impact of SBS on your workforce?
SBS symptoms can affect people’s skin, respiratory systems and their neurological functioning. Many employees might (understandably) mistakenly self-diagnose with a cold or flu (or worse still, Covid-19). The symptoms are very similar – the only difference being that SBS symptoms should subside outside the premises.
Diagnosing SBS can be difficult because of the wide range of symptoms it causes. While everyone who spends time in a particular space or office might go through some of the symptoms, these can vary person to person and some people may not experience any symptoms at all.
The possible symptoms of SBS include:
- blocked or runny nose
- dry, itchy or sore throat, skin and eyes
- shortness of breath (increased risk of asthma related problems)
- tiredness and difficulty concentrating
- allergic reactions
Symptoms of sick building syndrome (SBS) typically get noticeably worse the longer you are in a building and get better after you leave. This may be paired with noticing that other employees suffer the same symptoms when at work.
It is important to note however that SBS affects everyone slightly differently and some conditions it causes (particularly skin conditions can be slower to go away). In some cases, more long-lasting damage can occur as a result of an extended exposure to neurotoxins. In extreme cases SBS has been associated with cancers, problems in pregnancy and pneumonia.
Most symptoms however are alleviated soon after exiting the premises making it easier to distinguish.
Interesting fact: Humidifier fever – illness caused by breathing in water droplets from humidifiers heavily contaminated with microorganisms causing respiratory infections, asthma and extrinsic allergic alveolitis, the employee may have flu-like symptoms. It is also sometimes called ‘Monday Fever’ harking to its origins in the place of work. Permanent lung damage does not occur but prolonged recovery is needed when leaving the premises.
Who can be affected?
Almost any employee can be affected by the syndrome. It also occurs at home as well as at work, but the largest groups of reports tend to come from organisations employing a lot of people and in large office buildings which makes SBS most associated with an occupational hazard.
There’s evidence that those most at risk of SBS are those in more junior, high demand roles, often maybe because they have less support and control over their working environments comparatively. Routine job roles and clerical workers seem to suffer most, as do women compared with men, (although the correlation between the role type and gender should also be considered).
If you don’t think it’s affecting your employees – be sure to look at some of the more junior positions and their workspaces compared with your senior management before making a judgement. It is just a fact that generally senior employees tend to have better space to work in and better conditions overall.
THE INVISIBLE CAUSES OF SBS
It is not always clear exactly what causes sick building syndrome. Common pollutants that are found in many commercial business premises include carbon monoxide, mould, radon, asbestos, pesticides, ozone and a variety of organic compounds from a host of day to day office products you might never have even considered as potentially dangerous before.
In most businesses SBS is likely to be down to a combination of many factors, including:
- poor ventilation or poorly maintained air conditioning systems and humidifiers
- dust, smoke, fumes or fabric fibres in the air
- bright or flickering lights
- wider use of open plan offices and hot desking
- overuse of chemicals without proper ventilation (chemical contaminants)
- poor building standards or dangerous materials used e.g. formaldehyde, fiberglass
- poor maintenance of key systems e.g. water tanks & Legionnaires
- pets in the workplace that create allergens and dander
Factors are without doubt often interrelated and therefore can be hard to identify. The air we work in and how it is recirculated, treated and cleaned is rarely considered in your daily cleaning routine but it should be…
Businesses in major cities like London have added challenges of course. Air pollution in many cities is creating a public health crisis and for employers there is an awful trade-off between which is worse – the air quality inside vs. the air quality outside? Even in major cities – the answer remains the same and is concerning:
Indoor air is predicted to be between 2x and 5x more polluted than outdoor air.