Harvard study links poor indoor air quality to lower productivity. Here’s how to make sure you’re breathing right.

It’s Tuesday afternoon in the office and you’re feeling sluggish—again. Who do you blame? The sub you had for lunch, a poor night’s sleep or the CO2 levels in your office?

It feels paranoid, right? And a tad dramatic to blame air quality for your lack of focus.

In fact, the “built environment,” including and perhaps especially your office, affects your brain and body in ways you may not realize. We spend 90% of our time indoors and much of that in the workplace. Employees cost more than any other item on the balance sheet, and yet “indoor environmental quality and its impact on health and productivity are often an afterthought.”

This is according to Dr. Joseph Allen, an assistant professor, researcher and lead author of a Harvard study that proved that the air we breathe in the office has a deep and profound impact on our ability to work well.

The study was conducted by the Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment, and it made headlines when researchers found that higher levels of CO2 and VOCs* in the air led to lower cognitive scores.

Polluted air impairs productivity

If you’re underwhelmed by this conclusion, don’t feel bad. We’ve long known that sustainable updates can boost productivity, but the connection requires a bit of good faith. Productivity is hard to measure and the return on investment is abstract.

Now, Allen and Harvard researchers have not only confirmed the green-productive relationship, but they’ve taken it a step further to show the ROI in real dollars.

See details of the study below, but first a primer on productivity.

What is productivity?

Are you more productive today than you were yesterday? How do you know? Unless you can measure results (like in a call center or assembly line), quantifying productivity is a vague pursuit.

There are simply too many variables. How do you measure new relationships? Or strategic ideas? What’s productive for one person may be mundane for the next and vice versa.

What you can measure and manipulate is cognitive function. The math and verbal abilities, problem-solving skills and higher order thinking that produce real outcomes. Here’s how Allen’s team set out to do that.

What fresh air does for your brain

The study, published in October of 2015 in Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at employee performance in conventional, green and “green+” offices.

For six full work days, 24 employees carried out their normal job activities in a simulated office environment in a lab in Syracuse, New York.

On different days, they were exposed to varying levels of ventilation, chemicals and carbon dioxide, then tested on their ability to make decisions, complete goals, strategize in an emergency and so forth.

On average, cognitive scores were 61% higher on green days—those with fresher air—than on conventional days.

On the green+ days (when they circulated even more fresh outside air), scores were on average 101% higher.

The largest capability improvements were in the areas of:

  • Crisis response (97% higher scores in green conditions and 131% higher in green+)
  • Strategy (183% and 288% higher)
  • Information usage (172% and 299% higher)

What’s concerning is that the opposite is also true. Scores decreased for seven cognitive functions as CO2 levels returned to levels commonly seen in offices.

World Health Organization experts estimate that 30% of office buildings have poor indoor air quality. Beyond productivity problems, that air can actually make you sick.

With these results, every company in the world should be pumping more fresh air into their space. The challenge, of course, is justifying the expense.

The ROI of cleaner office air

In a recent follow-up report, the authors of the Harvard study revealed what “higher cognitive performance” is actually worth.

Using data from the Department of Labor, they determined the productivity savings have a value of $6,500 per person per year on average.

Meanwhile, the energy costs needed to achieve that level of ventilation are just $40 per person per year and only $1 per person per year for energy efficient systems. In other words, a 15,754% ROI. Not bad!

Clearly the benefits of higher ventilation rates far outweigh other efficiency measures, like energy costs. Especially when you consider the impact of poor ventilation—lower productivity, greater absenteeism and higher instances of respiratory health problems to name a few.

What can you do?

The short answer: circulate more fresh air.

Every building already does circulates air, but to what degree? To save energy, a building owner may recirculate indoor air and bring in less fresh air to save on energy costs. Measuring CO2 levels is a good start to see how stale the air is, but it doesn’t account for factors like VOCs and outdoor pollutants that make their way inside.

The biggest challenge in leased offices is that HVAC systems are controlled by the building owner. The questions, then, are why should they spend more money and who benefits from the investment?

Talk about ventilation in your lease agreement

Tenants should start insisting on clauses that outline acceptable indoor air quality guidelines, including CO2 levels and ventilation rates. Although keep in mind the Harvard study improved both measures beyond “acceptable” levels to achieve such strong results.

  • Ventilation should meet the most recent ASHRAE or any supported standard for indoor air quality.
    • Minimum required ventilation: 20 cfm/person**
    • Conventional day ventilation: 20 cfm/person
    • Green day ventilation: 20 cfm/person
    • Green+ day ventilation: 40 cfm/person
  • CO2 levels should meet the most recent ASHRAE or any supported standard for indoor air quality.
    • Maximum acceptable CO2 concentration: ~945ppm***
    • Conventional day concentration: ~945ppm
    • Green day concentration: ~743ppm
    • Green+ day concentration: ~536ppm
  • The landlord could perform Existing Building Commissioning (EB-Cx) or there should be a program of ongoing commissioning to ensure the building is running as efficiently as possible while meeting current tenant needs.
  • Within a stated timeframe, recommendations of the Existing Building Commissioning Study could be implemented that do not exceed an agreed dollar value cumulatively and do not violate the terms of any other existing lease obligations.

Fortunately, guidelines exist to help tenants and landlords navigate this conversation and maximize efficiency, while preserving investments.

An Energy Efficiency Lease Guidance document from the Natural Resources Defense Council outlines three guiding principles that can be added as amendments to an existing lease agreement.

Whatever ventilation strategy a workplace follows, tenant and building operators need to work together to develop an indoor air quality strategy. By getting all parties involved, a culture of efficiency can be developed, and the ripple effect will reach far beyond energy savings to human health and robust financial return.

* – CO2, or carbon dioxide, is the air we exhale. In small quantities it’s harmless, but high concentrations are toxic. VOCs or volatile organic compounds are gas or vapor chemicals in the air. Some cleaners, disinfectants, waxes, glues, paints or a number of building materials can emit VOCs.

** – A ventilation of 20 cfm/person means 20 cubic feet of new air flow per minute per person.

*** – A concentration of 945 ppm means that for every million air particles, 945 of them are carbon dioxide molecules (0.09%).

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About the author


About the author

Bob Best, Executive Vice President, Sustainability, Energy and Safety
Helping commercial buildings operate more sustainably and productively through energy management, sustainability programs and engineering services.

 

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