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How prioritising indoor air quality can level up your workplace

If you’re a head of workplace or even part of a workplace team, navigating the ever changing demands and requests of your organisation can be a real challenge. Whilst you may have demands from senior leadership to increase occupancy within your half empty office or cut energy bills, you also have to balance requests of the rest of the wider team to encourage efficient use of your commercial space and avoid the quiet quitting epidemic.

But what if there was one fundamental issue that, if dealt with, could solve a lot of your problems and also get you brownie points across the board?

It’s no surprise that we’re passionate about indoor air quality at AirRated (it’s in our name…) but our latest research suggests that air quality within your workplace could be a bigger force at play then you may suspect. In fact, workplace decision makers typically underestimate both the importance of air quality with the workplace but also the priority employees place on it when considering all the features of office working.

With this in mind we’ve put a short guide on air quality, why it’s important and how you can benefit from prioritising it within your workplace strategy. We’ll also take you behind the thought process of your colleagues too!

Before we get into all the reasons why air quality is important within the workplace it’s important to understand the basics of air pollution and how it impacts our daily lives as it’s importance and relevancy goes beyond the office walls.

What are the sources of air pollution?

When air pollution is discussed, the conversation usually focuses on man-made sources, but there are various pollutants that can be attributed to the natural environment. This includes sources such as smoke from wildfires, ash from volcanoes, dust from sandstorms and salt from sea spray.

Most air pollution, however, is anthropogenic – meaning that it is caused by human activity such as fossil fuels, agriculture, transport and waste disposal.

Pollutants are often generated and accumulate indoors, causing poor indoor air quality in our workplaces, but also our homes and public spaces.

Sources include: 

  • Chemicals from cleaning products, varnishes, air fresheners, candles
  • Mould 
  • CO2 from building occupants
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Dust and animal dander
  • Asbestos in building materials
  • Dust mites
  • Gases and PM2.5 from cooking
  • Outdoor pollutants entering the indoor environment via openings or inadequate ventilation systems

Environmental factors include: 

  • Inadequate temperature
  • High or low humidity
  • Insufficient ventilation

One of the more recent examples of air pollution impacting the indoor environment was the Canadian wildfires earlier this year which caused a major pollution event in New York City as the smoke blew down the east coast and transformed the skyline from hazy, slate blue in the morning to dirty, dishwater gray at noon.

Credit: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill / The New York Times

What are the effects of air pollution?

Air pollution can affect anyone at any stage of their life, causing a wide and complex range of health issues. In some cases, damage can be gradual and may not become apparent for many years. 

Short-term effects include: 

  • Respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis
  • Irritation of nasal passages, airways, eyes and skin
  • Headaches, dizziness and nausea 
  • Coughing, sneezing, shortness of breath
  • Exacerbation of asthma

Long-term effects include: 

  • Strokes 
  • Cardiovascular disease 
  • Respiratory disease 
  • Lung cancer 
  • Reduced life expectancy

Essentially there are lots of air pollution risks both externally and internally, potentially serious consequences for your tenants if not managed well.

How does IAQ impact the workplace?

Research into the impact of IAQ within the workplace usually focusses around Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), which was identified after World Health Organisation research in 1986 estimated that 10-30% of newly built offices in the West had indoor air problems.

The reason is that post-war buildings were built as airtight, centrally-heated structures, with no consideration for airflow or ventilation. Indoor air quality was simply not understood as a threat to human health. 

While SBS describes acute health and comfort symptoms linked to time spent inside a building, its effects trigger two types of behavioural changes within a workforce. 

Absenteeism is the term used to describe an employee being away from work for more than is reasonable or usual; presenteeism describes being present at work, but performing at low levels due to feeling unwell.

In the UK the average amount of days lost in 2022 was 5.7 per employee, with a sharp increase post covid. CIPD research from 2016 placed the cost of absence per employee per year at over £500, this is likely to have increased since then.

When it comes to presenteeism or poor performance due to working conditions, results from the COGfx Global Buildings study in 2017 showed that occupants’ cognitive function test scores doubled in good indoor air environments. 

The cost of running better ventilation systems to heighten employee performance came in at $14–40 per person per year, while the estimated ROI (in improved productivity in faster response times and increased accuracy), was measured at between $6,500 and $7,500 per person per year. Not only that, senior managers made better decisions when in healthier air environments.

Does anyone care about IAQ?

AirRated’s latest research suggests that indoor air quality and building health ranks as the most important office feature for office workers and in the top 3 for decision makers, however it suggests that other factors such as cost or location could trump decisions made about the workplace over building health. Is this justifiable?

72% of those in the workplace suggest that their awareness of IAQ has increased in the past year (17% more than decision-makers estimated) with 80% also suggesting that they understand how IAQ impacts their health. 

This data is also backed up by action, as 88% claimed that they would change their habits if they knew that it would reduce their exposure to air pollution and 78% of respondents had either purchased or were considering purchasing air quality technology to improve their local indoor environment.

When it comes to the workplace specifically, 81% of employees believe that IAQ monitoring should be mandatory yet only 26% of decision makers are currently committed to monitoring IAQ. 

This theme of transparency is becoming a key factor in employee’s willingness to work in a space or even for certain companies. 69% of office workers suggest that a lack of transparency around indoor air quality would influence their decision to work there, while 78% of employees said they’d be more likely to come into the office if it had a healthy building certification associated to it.

What should you consider and what can you do?

Make sure you understand how your building operates

Transparency around the health of a space is becoming a key factor in employee’s willingness to work in a space or even certain companies. 

Conducting IAQ monitoring and sharing that data openly with staff could help you communicate your commitment to employee health and wellbeing, improve office attendance and absenteeism as well as staff retention and recruitment when comparing against the approaches of the average organisation.

Employees hold you accountable for the creating and maintaining of a healthy building

When employees were asked who they thought was most responsible for the health of a working environment, business owners and decision makers were comfortably top of the list. Whilst there’s clearly calls for government and public decision makers to set new standards (they ranked second in both the UK and US), employees are looking to senior management in their organisations to prioritise healthy buildings and lead the charge.

With this in mind, it’s important that you are clearly communicating your plans and activities internally amongst your team to ensure buy-in and transparency around maintaining good indoor air quality in your office space.

Look for a commercial space with healthy building certifications, or consider investing in certifications yourself

Cost is one of the main barriers to organisations creating and maintaining a healthy indoor environment. One of the ways around that would be to prioritise finding commercial spaces with existing building certifications or partnering with a landlord who’s committed to creating and maintaining healthy workplaces with you.

Not only could this help you attract more of your staff back to the office (78% of employees said a healthy building certification would positively influence them in returning to or using the office) but it can save you the CAPEX costs associated with developing or retrofitting your own space to improve indoor air quality.

Alternatively, you could look to invest in certification yourself. Low cost, robust specialist certifications such as AirRated’s AirScore are simple ways to start your journey with indoor air quality. Third party evaluations and recommendations as well as a simple grading system (as you get with the AirScore) help you to communicate your building’s performance to stakeholders in an effective way but also give you a roadmap for managing your internal environment going forward.

Looking for support?

If you’re considering what you can do about your indoor air quality, or not sure whether it’s worth putting focus into IAQ, you can book a free ‘no-obligation’ consultation with one of our workplace consultants via the form below.