With 90% of our time spent indoors, indoor air quality (IAQ) is becoming a key concern for employers looking to provide a healthy workspace for returning employees.

We spoke to Dr. Mike O'Neill, author, strategist, and founder of HumanSpace™, an AI solution that helps businesses identify the most important workplace capabilities for employee wellbeing. His latest study, ‘The Individual Workspace, Air Quality, and the War against Stress’, explores the link between IAQ and employee wellbeing. 

Q) Your latest study looks at the effects of IAQ on stress. What is it about this area of wellbeing that particularly interests you?

Much of our research suggests that stress is the biggest enemy of wellbeing. It undermines health, emotional state, work performance and even engagement. 

We’re particularly interested in the role that the physical workplace plays in mental health - especially the individual workspace. This is likely to become even more important as organizations maintain social distancing protocols. 

However, a number of factors must be addressed when designing these spaces to ensure they lessen stress and avoid discomfort, with IAQ a top priority for employers and workers alike. 

Q) What link did your study identify between IAQ and stress?

We know that poor IAQ can increase the risk of physical health problems, whether that’s respiratory illnesses or the transmission of infections, but its effect on mental health and cognitive performance is less known. 

When we initially embarked on the study, which took place at two locations of a large US business organization, we analyzed work features that were causing a high number of eye strain and other physical wellbeing issues for employees.

What surprised us was the role that high-panel cubicles played on employee stress levels, with perceived IAQ cited as a key reason. 

The more you think about it, being in an enclosed workspace is like trying to pour more water into a cup that’s already full. The fresh water may penetrate a bit into the cup, but most will simply pour over the sides. In the same way, workers are conscious about breathing “stale air”, which is causing elevated stress levels. 

Our study concluded that employees working within cubicles with a lower panel height experienced significantly lower stress symptoms, physical discomfort, and eye strain than those with taller panels. They also reported fewer problems with stale air.

Q) Do you think Covid has heightened these concerns for workers? 

Sadly, stress from the pandemic experience will follow many millions of workers back to the office. We’re all acutely aware that bad IAQ - when humidity and high levels of particulates meet a lack of airflow - increases the chance of airborne bacteria and virus remaining suspended in the air. 

Some employers are installing plexiglass screens and moving away from open-plan office spaces to a more cubicle-based approach. There is now a rising concern that these enclosed spaces, coupled with a lack of airflow, will actually increase the risk of disease transmission.

Q) What tips would you give employers looking to tackle and improve IAQ?

First and foremost, the answer isn’t to open up the workspace further. We’ve already gone too far with open plan offices, bench working, and collaboration areas. 

I’d advise employers to focus on: 

1 - Control. Try to grant workers greater control of their workspace through adjustable features and choice. Our study found that the amount of control an employee has over lighting, furniture, and technology plays a significant role in reducing physical stress symptoms. 

2 - Airflow. Be mindful of placing furniture, storage boxes, chairs, or cabinets in front air vents as this will disrupt air circulation, causing the workplace to feel stuffy. Engage a HVAC engineer to perform indoor air testing to check humidity levels, airflow, ventilation, mold growth, odors, and water damage. 

3 - Flooring. Floor coverings can play an important role in improving workplace air quality. Carpet tile is available that captures and retains particulate matter, helping to improve indoor air quality for employees. Additionally, floor coverings with low VOC emissions using vinyl, linoleum and laminate, and wood flooring can also play a role in protecting air quality. 

You can access the white paper ‘The Individual Workspace, Air Quality, and the War against Stress’ below. Find out more about the work of Dr. Mike O'Neill and HumanSpace by visiting the website.

The Individual Workspace, Air Quality, and the War against Stress Download white paper
Marjolijn Verleg EMEA Marketing Communications Manager Workplace, Tarkett Full bio and articles

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