How to create a 'healthy office'
Article3 min08 June 2017
Compared to a construction site or an underground mine, an office doesn’t exactly seem like a dangerous place to work. But it can actually be harmful to workers if the right steps aren’t taken to protect them.
Many companies are already addressing the health of their employees by encouraging more physical activity in the form of exercise programs and sit stand desks, healthier eating by providing more nutritional snacks and improved mental wellbeing through taking breaks away from their desks.
But it’s also necessary to look at the physical environment, as this is just as important for the health of workers.
The healthier your workplace the better your employees feel and perform, making your business more sustainable
The importance of a healthy office
Since we spend at least half of our waking hours at work it makes sense that a healthy work environment is vital to our health.
Workers are obviously invested in maintaining their own health, and the companies they work for should also be invested as this will have a direct impact on the success of their business. Employees need to be well enough to turn up to work, and to do a good job when they get there.
Dexus Head of Sustainability and Energy Paul Wall says the major benefit for businesses in ensuring they have a healthy office is productivity.
“The healthier your workplace the better your employees feel and perform, making your business more sustainable,” he says.
“Having workers that are happy and healthy in their space helps you retain staff and attract good talent as well.”
Some office buildings can inadvertently sabotage the health of workers through what is known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS). The origin of SBS goes back around 40 years, when adverse health effects such as headaches and skin irritations reported by building occupants were attributed to the amount of time they spent in a building – and in many cases, the poor air quality of those buildings.
Mr Wall says when it was first identified, SBS generally related to heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Buildings became more sealed to keep the heat out and the cool air in, she says, and as a result ventilation levels worsened.
“Emissions from paints, aerosols and chemicals were trapped inside, and it was making people sick,” Wall explains.
Keeping the air clean
It’s vital for an office to be generally clean, as biological contaminants such as bacteria and mould can cause SBS.
But since poor air quality is the big factor that leads to SBS, it’s also crucial to keep the air clean if you want to create a healthy office.
Mr Wall says air quality is primarily affected by the amount of fresh air and emission levels from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in items such as office furniture, paint and cleaning products.
Having a well-ventilated space is the first step in moving away from SBS, he says.
“While Australian standards mandate the minimum amount of circulating fresh air in an office, we are using sensory technology to optimise this based on the actual conditions on the floor, ensuring our fresh air cycles provide the best conditions possible” notes Mr Wall, adding that plants may also improve air quality in an office.
Another important factor in creating a healthy office is regulating the airflow to be a constant and comfortable temperature, which Dexus has achieved through a thorough building tuning program and the introduction of building performance analytics called the “virtual engineer” program, says Mr Wall.
All offices have indoor environmental audits every year, during which the air quality is tested looking at factors such as carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and VOCs such as Formaldehyde.
But Mr Wall noted recent advancements in sensory technology allowed an expanded suite of air quality sensors so offices can be measured and monitored closely on a "live" basis. This enables adjustments to be made more frequently to make an office healthier.
While Australian standards mandate the minimum amount of circulating fresh air in an office, we are using sensory technology to optimise this based on the actual conditions on the floor, ensuring our fresh air cycles provide the best conditions possible
The fitout is key
While landlords can put measures in place to keep the air in an office well ventilated and as healthy as possible, tenants can counteract this during a fitout if they don’t give consideration to VOCs, says Mr Wall.
“When tenants are fitting out a space we provide education and guidelines around the requirements for creating a healthy office to steer them in the right direction.
“We prescribe low emission furniture, paints and recommend green cleaning chemicals.”
It isn’t costly for tenants to take steps towards providing better air quality in their office during a fitout, says Mr Wall.
“Since they’re already going to be painting or choosing furniture, it’s just making the conscious decision to choose low-emission or low-VOC products,” he says.
“The market is also now very sophisticated in this area and sourcing of the right products is not a difficult exercise.“It will also cost the business less in the long run because the space will be healthier, more energy efficient and workers more productive.”