Air quality has a significant effect on human health and the number of days employees miss at work. Various approaches exist to get rid of stuffy offices and polluted indoor air. However, their effect is often not tangible. The following article provides an intuition on how office air gets polluted, why large expenditures can be associated with it, and how air quality can be tangibly improved.
Indoor air quality, a serious cause of sick leave absences
The quality of air that we breathe influences our health, productivity, and well-being. More than 90 percent of our time is spent indoors and we each consume, on average, 10’800 liters of air each day. Hence, the importance of good indoor air quality is clear. Nonetheless, in modern energy-saving airtight constructions, the concentration of indoor air pollutants can build up to dangerous levels, posing a serious threat to occupants’ cognitive abilities and health.
The causes for polluted air in office spaces are typically airborne pollutants, toxic gases, and particulate matters released by indoor sources and activities. One of the most common indoor pollutants are volatile organic compounds, which can, among others, be found in everyday objects, such as furnishing, consumer goods, and air freshener. If their density exceeds a certain threshold, it can not only be classified as carcinogenic but also lead to headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, and many further symptoms. Other pollutants like particulate matters, on the other hand, can penetrate deep into lung passageways and enter the bloodstream, causing serious cardiovascular and respiratory impacts.
Research has found that up to 60 percent of today’s sick leave absences can be associated with poor indoor air quality. Given that the average annual absence from work due to illness in Switzerland is around 6 days per employee (bfs.admin.ch), mitigating poor indoor air quality risks is of great benefit for companies and their employees.
Did you know that a company with 100 full-time employees and an average wage of 35 CHF per hour spends around 168’000 CHF to compensate sick leaves? And larger companies with 500 full-time employees even 840’000 CHF?
How can indoor air quality be improved?
Various techniques have been proven to improve indoor air quality. Among others, this includes the frequent exchange of indoor and outdoor air, mechanical air purifiers with carbon filters or the latest trend, utilizing the natural filtration capacity of indoor plants. A challenge that resides, however, is to determine the effect of the different approaches to tangibly ensure optimal working conditions.
To address this uncertainty, Oxygen at Work, a Zurich-based startup, has developed a proprietary air quality dashboard. With the help of sensor technology, nine individual data points are measured that comprehensively indicate the quality of air in office spaces. Hence displayed in an intuitive color code, companies receive an immediate understanding of whether optimal values are obtained, and fact-based decisions can be taken if values deviate from scientifically recommended ranges.
Although optimal ranges can be achieved through different approaches, including mechanical air purification, the startup counts on the natural functions of indoor plants. The reason for it is simple.
“If high-performing plants are positioned in the right places and the right density, they can achieve great purifying results while reducing energy consumption of ventilation systems. Moreover, plants leverage the workplace wellness which helps to foster creative thinking and to reduce stress, which can be an additional cause for sick leave absences.” (Manuel Winter, CEO at Oxygen at Work).
Benefits of plants beyond air purification
Besides filtering airborne pollutants, toxic gases, and particulate matters, plants have an additional effect on the relative humidity through the process of transpiration. Around 90 percent of the water that is given to the plants gets transpired through their leaves into the air. Not only, but in particular, since the outbreak of Covid-19, this effect has retrieved increased attention in the public’s eye. Research has found, that by keeping the relative humidity on a continuous level between 40 and 60 percent, the floating and survival time of viruses can be reduced significantly. The reason for it is, those airborne droplets containing viruses are heavier and fall out of the air more quickly and the virus itself gets deactivated through a physicochemical reaction. Furthermore, the respiratory immune system’s defense functions effectively, capturing, removing, or fighting germs (www.40to60rh.com). With the re-entry plans of many companies in mind, the combination of indoor plants and air quality monitoring technology seems to be just the right choice to ensure and communicate optimal working conditions.
Do you wonder, how employees perceive the benefits of plants? On www.oxygenatwork.org you will find summarized feedback of 350 employees working in a natural environment regarding the impact of plants on the stress-level, ambiance, and productivity.