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THE INC. LIFE

According to Research, Poor Office Air Can Impair Decision Making

Studies suggest high levels of CO2 can result in decreased cognitive function.

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BY Anne Gherini - 01 Apr 2019

poor office air

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The average American spends 93% of their life indoors. The media headlines often talk about the depleting outdoor air quality, but neglect to talk about the air inside that we happen to be breathing the majority of our lives. For those who have chosen the "startup path" proper ventilation and constant monitoring of the air quality is often treated as a luxury than a necessity.

Personally, I have advised and worked for early-stage companies that had very humble office beginnings. I've walked into poorly ventilated rooms and could instantly determine what my co-workers had for breakfast and who forgot to give an extra swipe of deodorant that morning. Sometimes I would roll out of a marathon strategy session in a small room and feel lightheaded, never knowing if it was the lack of oxygen, the fluorescent lights, or the fiscal policy that made me wheezy. Needless to say, startups aren't for everyone.

Scientific studies have shown that poor indoor air quality could play a big part in how we feel at work, and it could also have a direct correlation to cognitive function. Studies from Berkeley National Laboratory and Harvard University looked at indoor carbon dioxide (C02) levels and how it affects our cognitive function and decision making.

First, let's flashback to 5th-grade science class to get a quick recap of carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 is a greenhouse gas that is natural and safe in small quantities, yet high levels can quickly escalate to be harmful to your health. Because humans produce carbon dioxide (CO2) when we exhale, concentrations of CO2 in occupied indoor spaces are higher than concentrations outdoors. The less ventilation, the more CO2 can hang around and cause problems.

The studies looked at both CO2 in the office and evaluated human participates decision-making skills in environments with different levels of CO2. What they found directly correlates to the zonked feeling you get when you tumble out of a crowded meeting room. First, it had been previously stated that 350-1000 pmm was typical for indoor buildings with good air quality. The study showed that at the 1000 pmm level there was some moderate, yet statistically significant decrements in decision making among the subjects. At 2500 pmm the deficits became more significant. People in these environments who complained about the indoor air quality also reported more acute health symptoms, such as headaches. They often work slightly slower and they were more often absent from work or school.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that in approximately 500 indoor air quality (IAQ) investigations in the last decade, 52 percent of the indoor air quality problems were related to inadequate ventilation. On an even sadder note, the Berkeley National Laboratory study looked at crowded elementary classrooms in California and Texas and documented that the average CO2 concentrations were above 1,000 ppm, a substantial proportion exceeded 2,000 ppm, and in 21% of Texas classrooms peak, CO2 concentration exceeded 3,000 ppm!

Now, back to our excessively long meeting in a closed room. When several people are talking in a closed off room for several hours the CO2 levels rise. Studies say those CO2 levels can exceed 1000 ppm and get as high as 5000 ppm depending on the ventilation and number of people. The longer the meeting, the more CO2 is trapped in the room with you and your coworkers. The levels are highest at the end of the meeting, at the same time when important decisions are being made.

For companies of all sizes, when you are evaluating office space it is important to keep air quality in mind, especially in the conference rooms. Monitors are now inexpensive and can help your team stay on top of any issues. Additional filtration systems and office plants can also aid in ensuring healthy levels of CO2 in the office.

Over-indexing for a healthy work environment will pay dividends in the future to your employees' overall health, happiness, proper decision making. Indoor air quality should not be taken for granted as the risks to business are too high.

 

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