What is sick building syndrome and how do you deal with it?

You’ve probably heard of a host of work-related health conditions, from musculoskeletal disorders to noise-induced hearing loss. But have you ever come across the term ‘sick building syndrome’? The fact is, if you work in an office, there’s a chance that you or your colleagues have experienced this phenomenon - perhaps without even realising it.

Sick building syndrome isn’t recognised as an illness in itself. It’s a phrase used to describe certain health complaints that people only get while they’re in a particular building - typically an office.

Keep reading to find out more about how to recognise this medical problem, the factors that can trigger it and what you can do to combat it.

The symptoms

It can be difficult to spot sick building syndrome because the symptoms overlap with a whole range of common health issues. For example, they can include dry or itchy eyes, a sore throat, headaches, poor concentration, irritability, a skin rash or a blocked or runny nose. So how can you distinguish this condition from a common cold, tiredness or stress?

One key difference is that the symptoms of sick building syndrome tend to get worse the longer you’re in a certain environment, such as your office, and they get better once you leave. They also continue occurring for longer than you would expect a cold or other such illnesses to last. Another giveaway is when other people in the building have similar symptoms over a prolonged period of time.

The cause

Although extensive research has been carried out into sick building syndrome, the exact cause is still not known. However, researchers think it’s likely that a range of factors increase the risk. These factors can be either physical (in other words related to the setup of the building) or job-related.

Physical or environmental factors can include a wide range of things, such as badly designed workstations, poor ventilation, unsuitable lighting (particularly relating to glare and flicker), poor maintenance of building standards, badly organised cleaning services, chemical pollutants, too much noise and excessive variations in temperature.

In terms of job-related risk factors, it’s thought that people who do routine clerical work and those who use display screen equipment are most at risk of experiencing sick building syndrome. Women are also more likely to suffer from it than men.

The treatment

The way to tackle the syndrome is to address any of the previously mentioned factors that you suspect may be causing it. For example, make sure your office is well ventilated and try to keep the temperature at a comfortable level. The Health and Safety Executive recommends that 19°C is usually suitable for office environments.

Ensure that your workspace is kept clean and well maintained too, and try to get your lighting levels spot on. Where possible, lighting systems should be designed to give individual employees control over their areas. Take steps to limit noise levels as well. Using sound absorbing desk or floor office screens could help you to achieve this.

In general, good communication between workers and managers is important as this helps to ensure that any issues employees are having are raised and dealt with.

As well as making people feel unwell at work, sick building syndrome can take its toll on companies’ bottom lines. It has the potential to increase sickness absences and lower productivity. It can also hit employee morale and affect businesses’ ability to recruit and retain the best personnel. So, it pays to be aware of this problem, be able to spot the signs and take action if necessary.

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