How the Air You Breathe Can Slow You Down at Work

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

The world is an unforgiving place. Bacon apparently causes cancer. Routine cheating on company tests can ruin your career. Jobs are simply disappearing into the ether.

On top of all that? You may be a victim of a silent, invisible adversary that is effectively destroying your ability to be more creative and productive. That’s right — an environmental factor, present in your house, office, car, bathroom, and anywhere else you can imagine, may actually be working against you, and you never even knew it. And what is this phantom menace, plaguing your every waking and sleeping hour, as if it were right there in the air?

According to Harvard researchers, it’s the air itself.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that people working in so-called ‘green’ buildings — those that have increased air circulation, and less overall pollutants and CO2 floating around — had superior cognitive abilities in comparison to those who did not.

“We found a significant increase in cognitive function scores when people spent a full day in a Green building compared to an environment designed to simulate a Conventional building by elevating VOC concentrations,” the researchers write. “Office workers had significantly improved cognitive function scores when working in Green and Green+ environments compared to a Conventional one. Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in Conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores compared to levels in a Green building.”

And in conclusion, “green building design that optimizes employee productivity and energy usage will require adopting energy efficient systems and informed operating practices to maximize the benefit to human health while minimizing energy consumption.”

With that, we have some concrete evidence that building design, ventilation, and the actual physical makeup of the air around us can improve or effectively wreck our levels of productivity. It’s interesting stuff, and there are a lot of ways that the information farmed from this study can be implemented for better outcomes.

But when we really dig into the data, it become clear that there wasn’t just a slight improvement in employee performance in the buildings with health-friendlier environments. The difference was pretty striking.

“On average, cognitive scores were 61% higher on the Green building day and 101% higher on the two Green+ building days than on the Conventional building day. The largest effects were seen for Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy, all of which are indicators of higher level cognitive function and decision-making.”

A 101% difference is huge. That means that employees were performing twice as effectively in the Green+ buildings than they were in the average offices. Those are the types of numbers that are going to grab the attention of executives and business leaders, eager to get everything they can out of their employees. Of course, the big hangup in building and adopting more environmentally-friendly workspaces has been cost. But if a simple change in environmental factors allows for employees to significantly bump up their productivity, it may be a cost worth eating.

Interestingly enough, it’s not the actual construction of green buildings that makes them more expensive, it’s the rents that the owners can command. And the rents can be high because green buildings are still relatively rare in comparison to conventional ones.

“The public dramatically overestimates the marginal cost of green building,” writes Nora Knox of the U.S. Green Building Council. “A 2007 public opinion survey conducted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development found that respondents believed, on average, that green features added 17% to the cost of a building, whereas a study of 146 green buildings found an actual average marginal cost of less than 2%.”

With further proof that these buildings can provide employers with a more productive workforce at a cost that isn’t nearly as high as typically perceived, thanks to the Harvard study, we may see a spike in green building. That’s a good thing for everyone, but also worrisome for those who don’t have access to ‘green’ workspaces. Still, being armed with this data for the future will lead to a more productive workforce.

Just imagine how much productivity was lost during the days that cigarette smoking was allowed in the office? This may be the next step.

Follow Sam on Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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