Work and Wellbeing · 23 September 2019

Signs that your staff are suffering from Sick Building Syndrome

Do you feel that your team are sick all the time? Are they constantly experiencing cold and allergy-like symptoms? Do they work in an air-conditioned and sealed office? Then there’s a chance that your workforce is suffering from something called ‘Sick Building Syndrome.’

But what is Sick Building Syndrome? How can employers spot its signs? Most importantly, what can they do to eradicate this wellbeing and productivity damaging menace for good?

What is Sick Building Syndrome?

Sick Building Syndrome usually manifests itself in a particular environment, where sufferers only experience poor health symptoms when they are at that location.

According to information provided by the NHS, the longer time a person spends in the affected environment, the worse the symptoms. However, when they leave or spend time away from the said environment, the symptoms improve.

Sounds straightforward right? But what does Sick Building Syndrome actually look like? Moreover, how can employers distinguish this threat from the evidence of a mere common cold being passed around the office?

The symptoms…

Possible symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome include:

  • headaches
  • blocked or runny nose
  • dry and itchy skin
  • dry and sore eyes
  • rashes
  • tiredness and difficulty concentrating

While the above symptoms could be caused by other things such as employees infecting or reinfecting each other during bouts of viral illness, it’s important that employers make a series of changes so they can rule out other possible reasons for a sick workforce and find out once and for all what’s really going on.

Why are shared office spaces suffering most?

Designing an office space
Employees in sealed offices are more likely to experience Sick Building Syndrome.

What’s quite scary for employers is that Sick Building Syndrome is most likely to manifest itself in shared office spaces. With this form of workplace increasingly becoming the most popular option for businesses today, it’s important to know why shared office spaces are most at risk.

Sick Building Syndrome can be caused by an office’s ventilation systems, such as lack of circulation of fresh air, or air conditioning systems that need cleaning.

Despite SBS symptoms having origins in lack of fresh air and the long-term use of computer screens in offices, general workplace stress could be the real reason why a team of office employees might be getting sick.

What’s more, in sealed office spaces you’re more likely to get a build-up of dust, fibres and other particles that can cause respiration based irritation in humans and can lead to allergy or cold-like symptoms. Also, lights that are bright or flicker can also be a key cause of workplace fatigue and can lead to Sick Building Syndrome.

Temperature fluctuations and air circulation

If you’re in an office space that has windows that open, do encourage staff to open them to increase natural air circulation. However, if you don’t have this option, it’s important to set your air conditioning to a constant level and refrain from changing it. The NHS suggests that this temperature should be 19 degrees.

Screen staring…

Did you know that staring at digital screens can cause insomnia?

It’s also important that employers encourage staff to take their lunch breaks outside, so they can get a hit of fresh air at some point in their day before they return to a sealed office space.

What’s more, staring at a screen for hours at a time can lead to another devasting work syndrome, namely Computer Vision Syndrome, which can put serious strain on eyes and increase feelings of tiredness in employees.

This is in addition to what workers and employers already know about the negative health effects of blue light exposure from computer screens, (which can cause insomnia), and can eventually lead to a sick and unproductive workforce.

The sign of a bigger problem?

Despite SBS symptoms having origins in lack of fresh air and the long-term use of computer screens in offices, general workplace stress could be the real reason why a team of office employees might be getting sick.

Of course, this is a bigger issue than this article covers. What employers must do is to consult their staff either by using managers or an HR professional to ascertain employee opinion on the levels of health and wellbeing in the office, before anything can be done to improve it – and progressive strategies put in place.

What to do next

Employees must be direct with their managers and employers if they believe that Sick Building Syndrome is the reason for their ailments at work. Employers must, in turn, consult their office building manager or landlord to see what can be done.

The steps…

Are your staff really suffering from Sick Building Syndrome, or are there other reasons?

Employers can…

1.  Turn to their local authority and consult the environmental health service.

2.  Get in contact with their nearest Health and Safety Executive, (HSE) office. (There’s even a free downloadable guide on how employers can respond to this situation).

The outcome of taking these steps and undertaking the appropriate investigations will be that…

a) your business is suffering from Sick Building Syndrome, which means you need to make some structural changes to your office

or…

b) your business is suffering from a wellbeing and productivity nosedive which requires you and your HR team to implement some more health and wellbeing policies into your business for the benefit of your workforce.

or even…

c) sometimes, people get sick, and in smaller office environments, employees are more likely to spread infections easily. That’s why it’s important to encourage staff to take a sick day when they are ill, and if they are able to work, to encourage them to work from home to limit the spread of illness in the office.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Annie May is the Features Editor at Real Business and Business Advice. Following her graduation from LSE, she embarked upon a freelance career in current affairs journalism. Annie has written on subjects varying from African history and contemporary politics to community business and current affairs news in London. At Real Business and Business Advice, Annie is passionate about highlighting inclusive and diverse business disruptors and organisations for our evolving readership. Annie believes in fostering community inclusion and has volunteered for organisations such as Fairfield House, a UK based Rastafari centre and a senior citizen association for ethnic minority men and women.

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