Workplace Well-being - Indoor Environmental Quality

As mentioned in the previous blog post, corporate and institutional sustainability reports should cover all three pillars of sustainability. Social sustainability can be seen as the hardest topic to address, but is essential to creating an engaged work community. One area an institution can be socially sustainable is maintaining a healthy work environment for its staff members.

A term that is often used to describe a healthy indoor environment is indoor environmental quality, or IEQ. IEQ focuses on the impacts of air and lighting quality, noise and sound issues, temperature, and odors on the health of a building’s occupants. A high IEQ for a building means that the occupants will be more healthy, comfortable, and productive. Most of the time people forget about IEQ, only recognizing the negative impacts of the outdoor environment on their well-being, like air pollution and UV rays. Although outdoor air pollution usually grabs our attention, studies show, on average, 90% of our time is spent inside versus outdoors; therefore IEQ has a significant impact on our daily well-being.

There are three IEQ categories, chemical, biological, and physical. Chemical and biological have more serious impacts on the health because they include problems with mold, radon, asbestos, and other volatile chemicals. These can result in long term health problems. Although the physical factors that contribute to poor IEQ don’t sound as threatening, they still cause unforeseen health problems to arise with employees. There are four major contributors to poor physical IEQ, thermal levels, odors, lighting quality, and acoustic comfort.

Oftentimes employees do not realize how great of an impact factors like thermal levels, odors, lighting quality, and acoustic comfort have on their performance. The thermal levels of a workspace can affect the efficiency of employees, along with their general health and behavior. The average temperatures for a comfortable work environment vary from season to season. For winter the suggested range is 68 - 75 degrees, while in the summer a range of 72 - 80 degrees is ideal. Along with temperature comes humidity, which should range from 35%-50%. If the humidity is too high or low it can affect employees’ respiratory systems and prompt bacterial growth.

Odor and acoustic discomfort can appear to have minimal impact on employee health and productivity, but in the end can cause serious stress and other health problems. The materials used in office spaces can have significant impacts on health due to their odors. There are certain building materials, like paints, stains and other compounds that have off-putting odors associated with them. These odors are actually volatile and can cause health problems. A commonly known example of this phenomenon is the new car smell. This smell, although some people enjoy it, is actually being produced by the new carpet in the car. The carpet releases volatile chemicals which can cause headaches, nausea and other health complications. Along with odors, acoustic discomfort can be irritating to employees, causing stress, anxiety, anger, and distraction.

One of the biggest physical impacts of environmental quality is lighting. The quality of light in an interior space impacts an employee’s productivity and daily well-being. Ideal lighting is natural light. The benefits of natural light on an employee’s health go hand-in-hand with a humans desire to be connected with nature. This theory, known as the biophilia hypothesis, recognizes that humans have a desire to be connected to nature. Outdoor views result in a more productive and healthy work environment for employees.

Example of a naturally lit office space

Although several of the physical contributors to IEQ seem to not have a significant influence on health, they greatly affect the overall well-being and productivity of employees. The more workplaces can adapt and provide a better IEQ the better work outcomes and production will result for their employees. Providing a better IEQ for employees can help save money by protecting the health and increasing the productivity of employees. As an employee, one should be aware of what contributes to a healthy work environment and attempt to make changes, where possible, to provide themselves with a healthy, productive indoor environment.