It’s pretty well established that indoor air quality can have a major impact on productivity. Put simply, we perform better when the air we breathe is cleaner. Beyond that, we spend a large portion of our lives indoors. Maintaining a high air quality in the at home and in the office can make a world of difference when it comes to our lifelong health.
All of that being said, it can be hard to determine what constitutes as good air quality! In today’s world, there are endless numbers of pollutants. We are constantly breathing in everything from window cleaner to car exhaust. And as much as we’d like to eliminate those pollutants entirely, it’s fair to say our air will never be perfect. However, being aware of which pollutants are among the most dangerous—and how to avoid them—is a major step.
What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?
Volatile organic compounds are naturally occurring chemicals, but can often have major health risks when highly concentrated. The group includes chemicals such as formaldehyde and benzene, with volatile organic compounds most often being found in sources such as paint, carpet, upholstery, air fresheners, and cleaning products. In other words, they’re present in the vast majority of office spaces and new homes!
And while these compounds occur in nature, their effects when indoors can be overwhelming. Symptoms get worse the longer an individual is exposed to the compound and the higher the concentration of the compound in the air. Common symptoms include irritation, headaches, and nausea, while more extreme symptoms include cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.
Volatile organic compounds are particularly concerning given that most individuals are unaware of them. Even products marked as eco-friendly can contain these compounds, as they are naturally occurring and sometimes unavoidable in manufacturing. As a result, it’s extremely important to be aware of the concentration of volatile organic compounds in your workspace to ensure that air quality is effectively managed.
How Do Volatile Organic Compounds Impact Productivity?
A study from Harvard and Syracuse Universities analyzed the impact of air pollutants—including volatile organic compounds—on workplace productivity. Twenty four workers in non-manual positions (such as architects and designers) were asked to work in a controlled office space for roughly a week. Unbeknownst to the workers, the researchers adjusted air quality each day to measure the impact on both productivity and performance. As expected, they found that when the concentration of volatile organic compounds, among other pollutants, increased, work performance decreased.
One of the biggest shocks? The researchers also tested productivity and performance under standard air quality levels. Even in an environment that lived up to standards set by the government, worker productivity took a hit. The researches found that productivity and performance was highest when air quality was optimized to exceed federal standards. In other words, even workplaces that are meeting every environmental regulation under the sun aren’t doing enough to ensure the health and success of their workers!
As this was a research study, it may be easy to imagine that they simply pumped volatile organic compounds into the air. However, that wasn’t the case. The researchers simply increased the number of common office materials present to have a major impact on volatile organic compound concentration and overall air quality. On the days they tested high levels of volatile organic compounds, they simply used more surface cleaners, dry erase markers and dry-cleaned materials! In other words, they utilized the risk-factors we already readily expose ourselves to.
On the bright side, as volatile organic compounds decreased and air quality improved, the researchers found that workers were able to make better decisions. They were tested on a variety of cognitive functions, and high air quality best improved their ability to plan, strategize, and handle stress. And those are the exact skills any successful company needs its workers to have to meet the highest of bottom lines.
Managing Volatile Organic Compounds in the Workplace
The fact of the matter is that you’re never going to completely avoid volatile organic compounds. They’re found in a wide variety of common household and office supplies, meaning that even the most eco-friendly of workplaces will be exposed to them. Beyond that, volatile organic compounds can also reach your office from outdoors or be brought in on the clothing of employees. All of that being said, it is definitely possible to both limit and manage volatile organic compounds to ensure the highest level of productivity possible!
First and foremost, be aware of the common sources of volatile organic compounds. The vast majority of products that pose a threat to air quality are labeled, often suggesting that you use them outdoors or in a well-ventilated area. Follow these labels closely, always relying on an exhaust fan or some other means of ventilation when called for. While it may be inconvenient, following instructions on these products can ensure that the concentration of volatile organic compounds doesn’t build up in your workspace.
It’s also important to safely store and dispose of these products when you’re finished using them. Storage spaces should be well ventilated and ideally away from the primary workspace or living space. You also shouldn’t dispose of products containing volatile organic compounds in the trash, instead of dropping them off at an agency that collects household toxic waste.
It can also be worthwhile to limit the products you purchase that contain volatile organic compounds. While it can be cost-effective to buy paint, building supplies, and other materials in bulk, it provides more opportunity for volatile organic compounds to build up in the workspace. Beyond that, it will help ensure that you only have products containing volatile organic compounds on hand when you actually need them.
As always, it’s also important to rely on technology to manage air quality and productivity! You can test for a variety of volatile organic compounds to discover exactly what’s impacting your air quality. The right air filter can also address volatile organic compounds, providing the boost in productivity and performance you’ve been looking for.