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Indoor Air Quality Is Important for Mental Health Too

There have been so many changes to our lives over the last three years it is almost hard to keep track. But one that does stand out is the new focus on air quality. As scientists and doctors raced to learn more about COVID-19 and how it spread, it emerged that the virus was highly contagious and often spread from person to person through droplets in the air. Since then, the spotlight on ventilation, circulation, and fresh air in the workplace has remained a top priority for office owners and operators. While it remains a priority for building operations to curb the spread of viruses and other pollutants, more research is emerging on the impact that indoor air quality, or IAQ, has on mental health, revealing yet another reason for owners and operators to make efforts to manage the quality of air in their properties. Especially given today’s competitive office leasing environment, anything that encourages more office attendance is welcome. 

Recent surveys from Infogrid and Ambius found that office workers feel a strong correlation between their health and the air that they breathe. In the report, which surveyed 4,000 workers in the U.S. and UK who spend at least one day a week in the office, 74 percent of US employees said they are concerned that poor indoor air quality is having a negative impact on their health, with younger employees more likely to be concerned than older employees. Notably, the survey also found that workers are more aware of the impact carbon dioxide levels have on performance, while half of office workers under 35 think their companies could do more to manage their workplace’s air quality. “Our findings not only show that employees are worried about their health, but they are also calling for their employers and governments to act now,” said Ross Sheil, Senior Vice President at Infogrid. “This is just the tip of the iceberg; indoor air quality will be on the agenda for years to come.”

Air quality is certainly on the agenda at the federal level. Just this month, the White House announced new updates on its efforts to improve IAQ within its portfolio of around 1,500 federally-owned facilities across the country. Among the changes are MERV-13 filters, at a minimum, in the HVAC systems of federal buildings, as well as a national program that would verify property ventilation in federally owned buildings. The administration is also committing to funding more research on the design and functionality of ventilation systems as they relate to IAQ for building occupants and billions of dollars in funding for individuals and institutions to improve ventilation and filtration at buildings around the country. The updated efforts on air quality were announced at the same time as another initiative to move away from gas and to electrify 30 percent of federally owned buildings by 2030. 

What we know so far about air quality has increased significantly since the onset of the pandemic, but there’s still much that is still unknown. The reports build on research going back at least a decade about the connection between the quality of indoor air and health. In 2011, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency that oversees safety in the workplace, identified indoor air quality as one of the top five most urgent environmental risks to public health in a report on IAQ in commercial and institutional buildings. While a lot of focus on air quality historically has been on things like smog and pollutants from factories and other kinds of emissions, with the CDC estimating that Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors, it’s clear that indoor air quality should be getting the same kind of focus as outdoor air quality.

Research has shown that higher levels of carbon dioxide can correlate to symptoms of what is known as “sick building syndrome,” like headaches, dizziness, and poor concentration, which has led to less productivity and decreased cognitive function. Other things that are thought to lead to the syndrome can include certain materials in carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products, and inadequate ventilation. Indoor air quality can also be impacted by humidity and moisture, secondhand smoke, and poor circulation and ventilation.

All the increased attention given to IAQ and more awareness of potential germs and pollutants in the air has undoubtedly led to the uptick in reported anxiety by Americans when going into spaces with poor air quality. The survey from Ambius found that 74 percent of people living in North America feel anxious when entering space with poor indoor air quality. As more office workers report concerns over the quality of air in their workplaces, more workers are also asking for better communication from building owners and operators about what’s in the air they are breathing. A study from Honeywell earlier this year found that 72 percent of office workers around the world worry about IAQ in their buildings. And while the vast majority of respondents wanted to be kept informed about the air quality in their workplace, only 15 percent reported getting regular updates. 

The added levels of anxiety surrounding IAQ is further pushing the trend of office design focused on the well-being of its users. Developers of office space have increasingly been looking to include more natural light and outdoor space in their projects, as well as biophilic design elements, which can include things like adding plants and living walls throughout the workplace, which can boost air quality. A recent study on the association between exposure to nature and health found that exposure to natural environments may reduce cortisol levels, a common measure of stress. Even how furniture is arranged in an office space can impact the flow and circulation of indoor air. Furniture and other obstructions can restrict air flow and create unexpected paths of air and pockets of stagnant air. There’s also been a big push in many places for buildings to move away from using natural gas as an energy source and go all-electric. Natural gas used in appliances like oven ranges has been shown to pollute indoor air, so switching to electric would further enhance a building’s IAQ. 

The design community has been taking big steps in thinking about how a building’s design can help improve mental health, particularly for buildings in the health and wellness fields. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) Strategic Council recently launched the Mental Health + Architecture Incubator to explore this more in-depth. Through this, architects and designers hope that new design research and prototypes for behavioral health facilities, like new guidelines for treatment facilities within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, can be applied to other building types. “The more we can understand how space can positively, as well as negatively, impact human behavior, the better we can become as designers to work towards solutions,” said Stephen Parker, an architect, and planner at SmithGroup. 

With air quality already a major focus since the word COVID-19 entered the lexicon, the new focus on air quality as it relates to mental health should certainly be a priority for office developers, designers, and property managers. A study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that improvements in air quality could improve workplace performance by up to 10 percent, while poor indoor air quality can cost up to billions of dollars annually in medical care and lost productivity, according to ASHRAE. Adding even more of an impetus is the trend of more companies adopting ESG goals and more cities adopting enhanced sustainability regulations for buildings. 

In today’s competitive office environment, anything that adds value and peace of mind for a tenant can be the differentiator that sets a building apart from the rest. The pandemic also led to a renewed focus on mental health in general, as the isolating early years of the health crisis led to increased rates of mental health conditions. As lawmakers look to strengthen rules on indoor air quality, office owners and operators would be wise to look into the growing number of tech tools used in buildings to easily monitor air quality if they haven’t already. Regularly updating office workers on the air quality of the building is an inexpensive and valuable way to give workers peace of mind and reduce anxiety and stress linked to IAQ, and as research has shown, those efforts have a big payoff for everyone.

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