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Sick Building Syndrome and Productivity: How to Avoid Decreased Performance

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Woman suffering from sick building syndrome losing productivity at work.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a growing concern among employees and business owners, especially as it relates to productivity in the workplace. SBS refers to a set of symptoms such as headaches, dizziness, and respiratory problems, caused by poor indoor air quality, lighting, and noise levels. These symptoms can significantly impact productivity, causing decreased performance, and absenteeism. In this article we will explore the relationship between SBS and productivity and provide actionable steps to avoid its negative effects.

The Impact of Sick Building Syndrome on Productivity

SBS can be a significant threat to productivity, causing employees to suffer from both physical and emotional symptoms. According to a study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), SBS affects approximately 30% of new or renovated buildings, leading to decreased performance and increased absenteeism. The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) also estimates that the annual cost of lost productivity due to SBS is around $60 billion in the United States alone.

One of the primary reasons SBS is such a drain on productivity is due to the physical symptoms caused that make it challenging to focus and stay productive. These symptoms can include headaches, fatigue and respiratory problems, just to mention a few. When employees experience these symptoms, they may feel unmotivated and have difficulty with timely completion of their tasks.

SBS can also cause emotional symptoms, such as irritability, mood swings and decreased job satisfaction. These symptoms can impact workplace relationships, leading to reduced teamwork and a decrease in collaboration. All of this builds until employees become unhappy at work, and then they are usually more likely to miss work or look for other job opportunities, thus impacting increased absenteeism and turnover metrics.

Preventing Sick Building Syndrome

To prevent SBS and improve productivity, it is essential to address the root causes. Poor indoor air quality, lighting issues and unacceptable noise levels are three primary areas that can be addressed that will result in noticeable improvement in the occurrence of SBS. Here are a few actionable steps to improve the indoor environment:

Improving Indoor Air Quality:

Indoor air pollution can have a significant impact on health and productivity. Common indoor air pollutants include mold, allergens, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from cleaning products, paints, and furniture.

To improve indoor air quality, start by opening windows to allow fresh air to circulate. You can also use an air purifier with an antimicrobial air filter to remove pollutants from the air. Additionally, it is essential to keep the workplace clean and free of clutter to prevent the growth of mold and other contaminants.

Conduct an Indoor Air Quality Assessment: An indoor air quality assessment can identify sources of indoor air pollution and provide recommendations for improvement. This assessment can be performed by a certified indoor air quality professional.

Develop an Indoor Air Quality Plan: Based on the results of the indoor air quality assessment, develop an indoor air quality plan that addresses the identified sources of indoor air pollution. This plan should include strategies for improving ventilation, removing pollutants, and maintaining a clean workplace.

Implement a Green Cleaning Program: Green cleaning programs use environmentally friendly cleaning products to reduce the use of harmful chemicals that can contribute to indoor air pollution. These programs also promote the use of green cleaning methods, such as steam cleaning and microfiber cleaning, to reduce the use of water and chemicals.

Invest in Indoor Plants: Indoor plants can help improve indoor air quality by removing pollutants from the air and releasing oxygen. Additionally, plants can help improve mood and reduce stress levels, leading to increased productivity.

Click here for related article on Indoor Air Quality.

Improving Lighting:

Poor lighting can cause eye strain, headaches, and affect circadian rhythms, leading to decreased productivity. Improving lighting in a large managed office can have a significant impact on employee productivity, health, and well-being. Here are a few suggested approaches to improving lighting in a large managed office:

Use blue light glasses: You can also use blue light glasses to reduce the effects of blue screen light on your circadian rhythm. Another option is to install small lamps on your desk to break up the glare from overhead lights. Additionally, if you're in a windowless office or cannot get enough natural light, try a natural light therapy unit.

Upgrade to LED Lighting: LED lighting is energy-efficient and long-lasting, making it a popular choice for commercial spaces. LED lighting also provides a more natural-looking light that can improve employee comfort and productivity.

Consider Task Lighting: Task lighting can help improve employee comfort and reduce eye strain by providing focused lighting for specific tasks. Desk lamps, under-cabinet lighting, and adjustable floor lamps are all examples of task lighting that can be used in an office setting.

Install Light Controls: Light controls such as dimmers, occupancy sensors, and daylight sensors can help save energy and improve lighting quality in an office. For example, dimmers can be used to adjust the light levels in a space based on the time of day or the activities being performed.

Provide Personal Control: Providing employees with personal control over their lighting can help improve employee satisfaction and well-being. This can be accomplished by providing adjustable task lighting or individual light controls in workstations.

Consider Daylighting: Daylighting, or the use of natural light to illuminate a space, can provide a number of benefits for an office environment, including improved employee health and well-being, reduced energy costs, and increased productivity. This can be achieved through the use of skylights, windows, and light shelves.

If you are in a large managed office, you may need to speak with you supervisor. Improving lighting in a large managed office can be a complex process that involves careful planning and consideration of a variety of factors. Working with a professional lighting consultant can help ensure that the lighting system meets the needs of all employees while also being energy-efficient and cost-effective.

Reducing Noise:

Noise levels in the workplace can have a significant impact on productivity, leading to distractions, headaches, and irritability. To reduce noise, consider using noise-canceling headphones or a personal white noise machine. Playing background music can also help mask irritating sounds, leading to increased focus and concentration.

Here are five specific things that can be done to reduce noise pollution in the office workplace:

Install Sound-Absorbing Materials: Installing sound-absorbing materials such as acoustic panels, wall tiles, and ceiling tiles can help reduce noise levels in the office. These materials absorb sound waves and prevent them from bouncing around the room, reducing the overall noise level.

Use White Noise: White noise, or a consistent low-level noise, can help mask other sounds in the office and reduce distractions. White noise machines or apps can be used in individual workspaces or throughout the office to help create a more peaceful environment.

Create Quiet Zones: Creating designated quiet zones in the office can provide employees with a space to focus and concentrate without distractions. These zones can be created using partitions, furniture, or other barriers to help reduce noise levels.

Limit Open-Plan Office Layouts: Open-plan office layouts can contribute to high noise levels in the workplace. Limiting the number of open-plan workspaces and providing private workstations or enclosed offices can help reduce noise pollution and provide employees with a more peaceful work environment.

Encourage Communication Etiquette: Encouraging communication etiquette such as using headphones when listening to music or taking phone calls in designated areas can help reduce noise pollution in the office. This can be reinforced through signage, training, or company policies.

Overall, reducing noise pollution in the office workplace requires a combination of physical changes and cultural shifts. By implementing these strategies, employers can help create a more peaceful, productive, and healthy work environment for their employees.

Challenges to Implementing SBS Workplace Changes

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a complex issue that can be challenging to address. While there are many changes that can be made to reduce SBS, implementing these changes can be difficult and both employees and employers will many times have to work together to implement successful mitigation strategies. It is important to keep in mind some of the challenges that may arise when implementing changes to reduce SBS:

Identifying the Causes: One of the biggest challenges in reducing SBS is identifying the underlying causes of the problem. SBS can be caused by a wide range of factors, including poor ventilation, high humidity, chemical pollutants, and inadequate lighting. Identifying the specific causes of SBS can require a comprehensive investigation that may involve testing, monitoring, and analysis.

Cost: Implementing changes to address SBS can be expensive, particularly if the changes involve major renovations or upgrades to building systems. Employers may be hesitant to invest in these changes if they perceive them to be too costly or if they don't see an immediate return on investment.

Resistance to Change: Implementing changes to address SBS may require changes in behavior or habits among building occupants. For example, encouraging employees to use natural ventilation instead of air conditioning may require a shift in mindset. Employees may also resist changes if they perceive them to be inconvenient or uncomfortable.

Inadequate Training: Building managers, maintenance staff, and other stakeholders may require specialized training to implement changes to address SBS. Inadequate training can lead to errors or oversights that undermine the effectiveness of the changes. Training all employees on SBS and its causes can help them recognize the symptoms and take action to prevent it. This training can include information on the importance of good indoor air quality, lighting, and noise levels, as well as strategies for reducing exposure to pollutants.

Regulatory Compliance: Building owners and managers may be subject to regulatory requirements related to indoor air quality and other aspects of building performance. Compliance with these requirements can be complex and time-consuming, particularly if they require retrofitting or upgrades to building systems.

Overall, addressing SBS requires a comprehensive approach that involves identifying the causes of the problem and implementing changes to address them. While these changes can be challenging to implement, they are essential for creating a healthy, comfortable, and productive work environment.


Sick Building Syndrome is a growing concern in the workplace, impacting productivity and employee health and eventually the bottom line of businesses. To prevent SBS, it is essential to address the three primary root causes of poor indoor air quality, lighting and noise levels. By implementing strategies to improve the indoor environment, such as opening windows, using air purifiers, and reducing noise levels, businesses can help prevent SBS and increase productivity.

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