Employee illness is something every business has to cope with from time to time, and a couple of sniffles and sneezes are generally no cause for concern. However, if your employees seem to be taking time off more frequently than usual, and many of them are complaining of similar symptoms, then you need to investigate the possibility that it’s your office space which is making them ill.

Sick building syndrome isn’t a specific disease or condition: it’s a catch-all term referring to the various ailments that can be caused by spending a lot of time in a particular building. The NHS lists the symptoms of SBS as including headaches, dizziness, nausea, aches, fatigue, poor concentration, shortness of breath, eye and throat irritation, runny nose and skin irritation. A sufferer may experience some or all of these, and this is by no means an exhaustive list. You can see therefore how a genuine case of SBS can be frustratingly hard to pin down.

Make no mistake though, SBS is very real, and can do serious harm to your employees’ health and your business’s productivity. Here, I run through the preventative steps you can take to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

Ensure adequate ventilation

One of the most significant causes of SBS is poor ventilation. Stagnant air filled with contaminants hangs around an office, filling employees’ lungs and generally making everyone’s day a lot worse.

The Health and Safety Executive recommends that an office building should have a minimum fresh-air flow of 8 litres per second per person, and an air flow velocity of no less than 0.1 metres per second and no more 0.25 metres per second (not too stagnant, not too draughty). It also recommends that rooms housing office machinery (e.g. photocopiers) be ventilated using a separate system.

Inspect your building’s ducts and ventilation system, and if in any doubt call in a professional to take a look.

Control the temperature

An office that is too warm, too cold, or frequently fluctuates in temperature can have a pernicious effect on your employees’ health. It’s unlikely to be the sole cause of SBS, but it can certainly be a contributing factor and is well worth looking into.

There’s no standard ideal temperature for an office environment, and obviously individual preferences vary, but ideally you shouldn’t stray too far away from about 19°C. Check the office temperature periodically throughout the day and make sure you’re keeping things even and comfortable for your employees.

Investigate the cleaning

How thoroughly is your office being cleaned, and how regularly? Are surfaces being disinfected, floors thoroughly vacuumed, crockery properly washed? Sloppy cleaning routines lead to buildup of bacteria, which in turn leads to sick employees. Look also at where and how your cleaning supplies are being stored, and that they aren’t leaking chemicals into the air to be inhaled by your employees

Check the humidity

Much like temperature, humidity isn’t necessarily a big risk factor on its own, but if paired with other issues it has the potential to exacerbate them severely. An overly humid office is a breeding ground for bacteria, while an office that isn’t humid enough will create a dusty atmosphere and worsen some of the symptoms of SBS such as a scratchy throat or dry skin.

The range of acceptable humidity is pretty broad, with anywhere between 40% and 70% being generally considered perfectly fine. If your office is warmer then it’s best to err towards the lower end.

Look at the lighting

You may not think it, but light can be a significant factor in SBS. It’s best to be able to utilise natural light as much as possible, so try to discourage employees from shutting the blinds. Conduct regular checks of the lighting systems to make sure none are flickering, glaring or making noise. Poor lighting placement with respect to employees’ screens can also be a factor, so investigate this too. The Health and Safety Executive has published a pretty comprehensive guide to workplace lighting that is worth a read.

Don’t let something as easily correctable as Sick Building Syndrome harm your employees and your business – be thorough and considerate and you’ll be able to stop the problem before it starts.

By Tony Ellerker, Director of Blakes M&E Building Services