This article is part of our special report Healthy buildings: Good for our wallets?.
Humans have been labelled an “indoor species” because of the amount of time we spend indoors. That is why there is a fresh drive to increase the healthy environment of the buildings where we spend the second biggest portion of our time: our places of work.
According to various studies, people spend on average around 90% of their time in their homes, places of work and transportation. In Europe, more people than ever are working in offices, as over 80 million of us ply our trade behind desks.
Tools like the Healthy Homes Barometer (HHB) have used these potentially shocking statistics to raise awareness about the impact things like leaky roofs, damp, bad lighting and inadequate heating have on our physical and mental health.
In the past, reporting and studies on this impact have focused on our homes but now offices and factories are under the spotlight too, particularly since there is a link between our general well-being and how productive we are at work.
A healthy worker is a productive worker
One study quoted by the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) shows that something as simple as poor indoor air quality can cut productivity by between 6 and 9%. General discomfort caused by poor temperatures can lead to reduced job satisfaction and higher job turnover.
Factors like low temperatures caused by malfunctioning air conditioning can prompt asthma attacks, cause colds and lower immune system resilience. This, in turn, increases the number of sick days taken on average by employees.
At the annual Healthy Buildings Day in Brussels last week (26 September), Professor Peter Barrett of the University of Salford said that if a healthy environment “is viable in our homes, it is also viable in our offices”.
This year’s edition of the HHB reveals that personnel costs, including salaries and benefits, generally account for 90% of the operating costs of a business, meaning even “small variations in worker productivity can potentially have a significant impact on a company’s performance and costs”.
But problems are widespread and more than 80% of European office workers report they have to put up with excessively high or low temperatures one out of four working days. The barometer cites data that shows employee performance can be slashed by up to 10% as a result.
Let there be light
Although poor temperature control and bad ventilation rank high among worker complaints, lack of access to natural light topped a recent YouGov survey, which revealed that 63% of respondents think daylight has a significant effect on their work.
One study in a call centre showed that workers with a window view and good lighting processed their calls up to 12% faster than colleagues who did not have either. Mental function tests also recorded a 2% success rate increase.
Ongoing research also shows that increased access to daylight during working hours significantly improves sleep patterns, as workers stand to add three-quarters of an hour to their nightly dose under the right conditions.
Industry leaders and even policy-makers are now citing these productivity statistics as proof that it is in Europe’s best interests to renovate its old and outdated buildings at a faster rate than the current 1-2% per year.
John Sommer, strategy director at Nordic construction group MT Højgaard, said during the Healthy Buildings Day that “healthy buildings are good for business” and other panellists also echoed the “economic value” of renovations.
As Europe thinks in earnest about its place in the world and whether ambitious climate policies will blunt or sharpen its competitive edge, healthy workplaces could be an important piece in the puzzle.