As wellbeing is a somewhat subjective concept, it has to incorporate elements of the controllable and uncontrollable, the obvious and the hidden, the work-related and the non-work-related.
One way of addressing this is to think of the office in its purest form as an ecosystem – a biological community of interacting organisms (employees) and their physical environment. To have a healthy ecosystem, it is important to manage energy inputs, waste outputs and population.
In the workplace, one might think that we can readily control systems to ensure that the environment for workers is always conducive to wellbeing, but it probably isn’t that simple. Consider the air you are breathing right now…
Fresh or Purified Air
The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 impose requirements on employers to make effective and suitable provision “to ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air. “ If you are at work in a city-centre office, the chances are you aren’t, and indeed haven’t been for some time, breathing ‘fresh’ air. In many buildings, opening windows are obsolete, expunged from designers and architects concepts at the very outset, removing the opportunity for that instant influx of external air to stir up and dilute the interior. Air-circulation systems usually mix a small amount of external air, drawn through vents, with the recirculated air, passing the mix through scrubbers and filters to produce, if not ‘fresh’, ‘purified’ air.
Obviously the outdoor air may not be viewed as a particular improvement – particularly in Central London – but it replenishes oxygen levels and dilutes pollutants generated within the building, so as high an external air component of the air within an office should be aimed for (remember it can be filtered for particulates, etc. first). Outdoor air can also help to maintain an acceptable level of humidity in the air. Over-circulated air can become ‘dry’ which can in turn cause discomfort.
It isn’t just about ‘opening a window’ though, there are other considerations, like limiting pollutants at source. This can be achieved by minimizing the use of volatile compounds in the workplace and providing localized ventilation at source in printer/copier areas. Such measures need not be restricted to direct work activities however, which can help to tackle the difficult issue of odours, which may not be harmful, but may be unpleasant or distracting. Effective localized extraction is obviously utilized in sanitary areas but can also be provided in kitchenette and rest areas – to prevent the smell of someone’s mackerel lunch being shared with the entire office, for example!
A crucial but often overlooked contributor to office wellbeing can be indoor planting - plants naturally provide an element of bio-filtration of the air around them and, as a result of the process of photosynthesis, they will absorb CO2 from the surrounding air, produce oxygen and increase humidity levels. They also have the benefit of tapping in to most people’s innate ‘biophilia’ – that feeling that greenery makes an environment more pleasant.
Of course the greatest challenge within the workplace eco-system is the interaction between the workers. It isn’t realistic to expect employers to ensure that there can’t be any potential transfer of viruses or bacteria within the workplace, that is reliant on basic behavioural measures (or ‘manners’ as I was taught them) such as using a tissue of handkerchief when you sneeze, putting your hand over your nose and mouth when you cough and, crucially, not going into work when you are a germ-ridden member of the Walking Dead. Employers can obviously assist though by providing sanitiser sprays, etc., and ensuring that employees have adequate individual space.
Is it worth the bother? Well, studies have shown that improved ventilation strategies can lead to a 10% increase in productivity, and poor air quality can have a similar negative effect. Poor ventilation can lead to elevated CO2 levels which, in turn can lead to increased tiredness and decreased responsiveness. Studies in the Netherlands found that indoor planting led to improved air quality, a perception of a healthier workplace and increased productivity. At an anecdotal level, think of your best and worst comparable jobs, I’m willing to bet that the better one had better ventilation, space and lighting in the workplace. There is a line of thought that, ultimately we all yearn to work in the fresh air in the sunshine, so a workplace that mimics that most effectively will satisfy that urge.
So if you can, traffic noise and bus fumes permitting, throw open a window and let the summer breezes blow some benefit into your workplace.
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