Stress and lack of support behind sick building syndrome

‘Sick building syndrome’ is a hallmark of job stress and lack of support rather than an unhealthy building, according to research.

Sick building syndrome describes a cluster of symptoms affecting the eyes, head, nose and throat and skin, all of which have been associated with the physical properties of office buildings.

The syndrome costs UK businesses millions of pounds every year in lost productivity and sickness absence, but research has so far failed to identify consistent associations between particular properties of buildings and the symptoms.

The research of more than 4,000 civil servants aged between 42 and 62, working in 44 different buildings across London found that one in seven of the men and about one in five of the women reported five or more symptoms of the syndrome.

Advocates of sick building syndrome claim that high levels of symptoms are associated with temperatures outside the recommended range, poor relative humidity, airborne bacteria and dust.

But the research found that lower levels of symptoms were reported in buildings with poor air circulation and unacceptable levels of carbon dioxide, noise, fungus and volatile organic compounds.

The most significant factor associated with symptoms was high job demands and low levels of support in the workplace, the report, published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine magazine, found.

“Our findings suggest that, in this sample of office-based workers, physical attributes of buildings have a small influence on symptoms,” the report concluded, adding that the term sick building syndrome may be wrongly named.

When sick building syndrome symptoms come to light, managers should “consider causes beyond the physical design and operation of the workplace to include the organisation of work roles and the autonomy of the workforce,” the research suggested.



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