When employers talk about wellness and its role in productivity, they are usually referring to physical well-being. Some progressive employers may take mental, social, financial, and other dimensions of well-being into consideration, but few usually mention environmental health. Perhaps they should.
Several studies indicate that the workplace environment (i.e., room temperature, air circulation, air quality, etc.) can affect employee performance. One main culprit is carbon dioxide, which occurs naturally through exhalation. In a small conference room, carbon dioxide can build up.
Concerns About Carbon Dioxide In The Office
Carbon dioxide is a gas found in the atmosphere. This should not be confused with carbon monoxide, which is a poisonous gas that can build up from household appliances. In contrast, carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants in photosynthesis and is exhaled by humans when breathing. While carbon dioxide doesn’t have the poisonous effect of carbon monoxide, it does cause some adverse effects.
One study found that when exposed to increased levels of carbon dioxide, people felt tired, had higher blood pressure, and made more typographical errors. Another study indicated that higher levels of carbon dioxide affected proofreading, attention span and reaction time. Perhaps most concerning were the studies that found carbon dioxide levels affected cognitive performance, particularly decision making.
Other studies on children report similar results. One report found that increasing ventilation in classrooms helped students improve their test scores, with better addition and number comparison, grammatical reasoning, and reading and comprehension.
It’s worthwhile to note that these studies are small and other studies have been conducted that did not detect a correlation between the environment and performance. However, as companies increase their focus on wellness, it makes sense to consider how the employees’ physical environment, such as air quality, impacts health and productivity.
Creating A Healthy Environment
Sustainability is often a term used to describe environmental efforts like recycling and composting, but some forward-thinking employers are looking at how to help sustain the well-being of their employees.
For some companies, this includes improving the work environment, including office design. Some offices create green spaces, develop layouts that encourage employees to take more steps, have large windows for more exposure to the outdoors, obtain LEED certification, or stock offices with ergonomic furniture to encourage good posture.
With conversations on environment and climate change likely to continue, the interest in how air quality and other aspects of the environment affect employees at work will likely increase.
For now, as employers consider how to keep employees productive, it’s worth keeping in mind that stuffy, warm offices or conference rooms can adversely impact performance. By turning the thermometer down a notch, cracking open the door or window, or holding the meeting outside, employers can encourage their people to breathe higher quality air and think fresher thoughts.