MedPPE Blog June 3

Can Clean Air Improve Your Bottom Line?

Did you know that the air quality in your workplace affects productivity? 


It pays to clean the air in your workplace. Results from a research study adds empirical evidence to a long-recognized phenomenon that affects a businesses’ bottom line: that ventilation rates in an indoor environment significantly influence health and productivity. Or as Ben Franklin once assessed the situation: “I am persuaded that no common air from without is so unwholesome as the air within a close room that has been often breathed and not changed.” 

Way back in the 1970s during a period known as “the energy crisis” efforts to conserve heating and cooling resources, resulted in a tightening up of office towers and industrial buildings and a reduction in ventilation so buildings didn’t have to bring as much “fresh” unheated or uncooled air inside. This practice of reducing the amount of air being brought in from outside led to a build-up of indoor pollutants. This rather unhealthy phenomenon became known as the “sick building syndrome” and it could cause workers to suffer from many different symptoms, including headaches, coughing and eye irritation.

Studies have shown that the amount of ventilation, or fresh air brought inside, is vital to good health and that proper ventilation can reduce workers’ symptoms, cut absenteeism and reduce infectious disease transmission. 

In an article entitled “Stale Office Air Is Making You Less Productive” by Joseph G. Allen in the Harvard Business Review, Mr. Allen and colleagues Jack Spengler and Piers MacNaughton at Harvard University, and collaborators Suresh Santanam at Syracuse University and Usha Satish at SUNY Upstate Medical, provide the results of their study that endeavoured to discover whether improved ventilation affects cognitive function, and therefore an indicator of worker productivity. Specifically, the authors wanted to know if being able to breath better air can influence a worker’s ability to process information, make strategic decisions, and respond to crises.

In the first phase of their study, the authors enrolled 24 “knowledge workers” (managers, architects, and designers) to spend six days, over a two-week period, in a highly controlled work environment. Every day the study participants went to a controlled location to do their normal 9 to 5 job. Without the knowledge of study participants, the air quality conditions of their workspace changed from a conventional environment, that met only minimally acceptable standards, to an optimized one.

In his article, Mr. Allen describes the testing protocol utilized during their study:  “To create the optimized environment, the researchers increased the amount of outdoor air brought in to the space (i.e., the ventilation rate), doubling what is required under the “acceptable indoor air” standard, a condition that most buildings can achieve. We also changed the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the space by controlling the number of common materials that emit these chemicals — e.g., surface cleaners, dry erase markers, dry cleaned clothing, and building materials. We exposed the workers to a typical and a low VOC concentration. Last, we tested three levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air: low levels (600 parts per million) that result from high ventilation rates, a typical level seen in many offices (950 ppm), and higher levels that are commonly encountered in some U.S. schools  (1400 ppm). We held everything else constant. At the end of each day, we tested the workers’ decision-making performance using a standardized cognitive function test that researchers have used for decades.”

The results: Not surprisingly, researchers found that breathing better air led to better decision-making performances among study participants. They recorded higher scores in nine cognitive function tests where workers received increased ventilation rates, lower levels of chemicals, and lower carbon dioxide. The results produced the biggest improvements in areas where workers used intelligence information to make key strategic decisions and how they planned, stayed prepared, and strategized during crises. Researchers noted that these are “exactly the skills needed to be productive in a knowledge economy.”

Researchers noted that this study was conducted as a double-blind study to limit the potential for bias and that just as participants were kept blind to the changing conditions within the workplace, the scientists who analyzed the cognitive function data were also kept blind to the conditions. 

In the second phase of the study, researchers moved to real world conditions to test additional factors beyond ventilation, VOCs and CO2 that might affect cognitive function. They enrolled more than 100 knowledge workers in 10 buildings across the U.S., six of which had been granted “green certification.” Researchers  measured the air quality in each of these buildings and tested workers’ cognitive function.

Controlling for factors such as salary, type of work and geographic location, researchers found that workers in green certified buildings scored higher on the tests. In addition to air quality, temperature had an effect as well. When workers toiled under a comfortable temperature and humidity range, they performed better on tests of key decision making, independent of the building they were in.

Study author Mr. Allen recommends that business leaders and building managers take away certain facts from these findings: That better air quality in your office can facilitate better cognitive performance among workers. 

Researchers benchmarked the cognitive function scores from their study to the thousands of people who have been tested, and paired the percentile increase in scores to salary data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. They estimated that the productivity benefits from doubling the ventilation rates amount to $6,500 per person per year. And this amount does not even include other potential health benefits, such as reduced sick building syndrome and absenteeism.

The ultimate conclusion reached by study researchers is this: “Ultimately, managers would be wise to routinely incorporate health impacts into all of their cost-benefit calculations. When health is accounted for, the costs for enhancing the indoor environment can be properly weighed against the health and productivity benefits. For example, an executive will clearly see that an enhanced facilities budget will reduce human resource costs. This makes buildings, in essence, a human resource tool.”

If we’ve all learned one thing in this pandemic, it’s to not be in a room without fresh, clean air. Whether by ourselves, in our own homes in a zoom meeting or masked in a conference room that is stuffy and overheated. When fresh air comes in when a window or door is open, it breathes life into the room. Businesses around the world would benefit from recognizing this and by taking action to optimize air quality for employees’ health  and productivity.



“Research: Stale Office Air Is Making You Less Productive” By Joseph G. Allen, Harvard Business Review, March 21, 2017, To read the full study and results please click on the link below: