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Can Indoor Air Quality Affect Productivity?

office workers together around a computer

Does indoor air quality increase productivity in the workplace and reduce absenteeism in schools?  Employers and administrators are constantly looking to improve productivity and test scores. We often get calls from office managers about IAQ issues, but there is often pushback from upper management because there is uncertainty regarding the financial benefit of improved indoor air quality (IAQ). This blog will discuss some situations in which IAQ can have a beneficial effect on productivity. Since the modern workplace strives for productivity, this blog might help you convince management that money spent on indoor air quality could perhaps save the company money in the long run.

Cramped Office, Stale Air, Lowered Productivity?

Many modern workplaces are wide open areas with workspaces right next to each other. Office planners have been building offices this way since the ‘90s, with the goal being open spaces to improve teamwork and collaboration. One of the unintended consequences is you can also smell what your deskmate had for lunch. A major IAQ contaminant in large office spaces is carbon dioxide. CO2 is exhaled from our lungs as we breathe, and in spaces with many people and inadequate ventilation, these CO2 levels can become elevated. There have been studies performed by researchers across the globe; one of which was done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and indicated a drop of cognitive ability of 15% in environments with CO2 levels at 945 ppm and a drop of 50% with levels at 1,400 ppm compared to an average baseline of 536 ppm. This same study also looked at the volatile organic compound (VOC) levels in the workplace and found similar effects on cognitive ability. VOCs are introduced into the air from a number of sources: everything from your neighbor’s perfume to the products the dry cleaners use, down to the office furniture. By increasing ventilation, which drops CO2 levels and VOC levels, the study concluded that improving IAQ increased productivity by an estimated $6,500 per employee per year. Your company’s mileage may vary, but this is a reflection on how poor air quality can have a very real effect on your workers’ productivity, and the cost of an air quality assessment can be a drop in the bucket compared to the potential loss of productivity.

CO2 in Schools

Similar issues with CO2 have been documented in schools, with some studies showing an increased rate of absenteeism in classrooms with high CO2 levels. The average classroom population size is growing across the country (which means more CO2 introduced into the classroom), and the average school in the US is over 40 years old (built during a time when energy efficiency was a main priority which offers minimal options for proper ventilation), creating a situation where classrooms can have CO2 levels over 3000 ppm!

It is important to note that this blog only scratches the surface of the studies related to IAQ in the school and workplace at the time of writing. There are many studies on other contaminants such as allergens, mold, and moisture, etc., not to mention how exposures to multiple IAQ contaminants can interact. It is very difficult to measure productivity in general, let alone the effect of indoor air quality, especially among knowledge workers who don’t produce a measurable amount of widgets each day. If your company has concerns about indoor air quality in your workplace, don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

Ian Cull

Ian Cull is a nationally recognized expert in the field of indoor air quality. He is the Chief Science Officer of Indoor Science, a company he started in 2004. He speaks around the world on air quality topics and is a training provider of the Indoor Air Quality Association. Mr. Cull is a Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH). His degree is in Environmental Engineering from the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. Mr. Cull has developed 50 air quality related courses for the IAQA University and is the author of the book, “Fundamentals of Mold Remediation”. In his words… “Besides being passionate about indoor air quality, I enjoy cycling, music, the Chicago Bulls, and having fun with my three kids.”