What exactly is Sick Building Syndrome?

We all have off days, but if you’re struck by intolerable itchiness, excruciating headaches or excessive tiredness in your workplace, your symptoms might be caused by something more sinister than stress or burnout. In fact, you may be allergic to your office.

Sick building syndrome is a poorly understood phenomenon that causes occupants of a particular building to develop a range of unpleasant symptoms. These symptoms tend to worsen or improve in correlation with the amount of time spent in the building.

Typically symptoms caused by sick building syndrome include:

  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Blocked or runny nose
  • Dry or itchy skin
  • Dry or sore eyes
  • Rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating

These symptoms could be caused by numerous ailments. However, if they worsen when you’re in a particular building or improve when you leave, this suggests that your environment is the issue.

What causes sick building syndrome?

What exactly about the environment causes these symptoms to develop? Nobody really knows what causes Sick Building Syndrome to occur, but it is speculated that a combination of undesirable conditions are at play. Everything from poor lighting, to stress, to animal infestations are suggested as possible causes.

Poor air quality, however, is likely to be the main culprit -- sick building syndrome commonly occurs in buildings that lack adequate ventilation and air conditioning systems, as well as in environments with high concentrations of dust, smoke or fumes. 

Interestingly, the term is thought to have been coined around the time of the 1970s energy crisis. With Western nations experiencing petroleum shortages as a result of disruption in the Middle East, buildings became more sealed to minimise energy costs.

This also resulted in reduced airflow and higher temperatures, both of which contributed to a reduction in air quality. So while employers may have been saving some money, it is likely that their employees were subsequently paying the price.

Overcoming sick building syndrome

An afternoon spent under the duvet recovering from the sudden bout of illness might not sound so bad. However, today’s work becomes tomorrow’s and those deadlines don’t go away. Subsequently, you’re forced to spend more time in an environment that is making you feel progressively more unwell.

Not only can sick building syndrome have a significant impact on your workplace performance, but it can also prove damaging to your life outside of the office too. After spending eight hours fighting through feelings of nausea, you’re unlikely to feel up to trying out that new restaurant or grabbing a few beers with your friends, family or colleagues.

Luckily, there are simple changes that both you and your employer can make. 

If you believe you’re suffering from sick building syndrome, try these three easy steps to improve your office air quality and ease your symptoms:

Step 1: Open a window
Step 2:
Spend your breaks outdoors
Step 3: Clean your desk and vacuum up any dust or debris

If that doesn’t help, you may need to turn to your employer to help you identify the cause. Here are some simple steps that employers can take:

Step 1: Adjust the office humidity
Step 2:
Check and clean HVAC systems to improve airflow
Step 3:
Evaluate the use of VOC-emitting cleaning products and materials
Step 4:
Install air filters to remove contaminants

Identifying the cause of sick building syndrome will take some trial and error. However, overcoming it should be a priority for both you and your employer. The average European worker spends close to 25% of their working life in the office… nobody should have to suffer for that amount of time.