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Under the Influence

Working in an office with high CO2? You may as well be drunk.

As absurd as it may sound, there is science to support this. Symptoms like dizziness, tiredness and confusion, experienced as a result of moderate intoxication mirror those of exposure to high levels of CO2 in the air. So what does this mean? Well, mental performance is most notably affected by these symptoms, associated with elevated CO2, and the bad news is that workplaces are notorious culprits for poor indoor air quality. So, when looking to understand the extent of the effects of CO2 on performance – the office is a good place to start.

Cognitive function is a term used to describe how our brains work day to day. Assessing cognitive function illustrates our ability to perform tasks from low level, basic activity to high level, crisis response. A study on cognitive function and blood alcohol concentration (BAC) showed that when 0.10% BAC was reached, performance decreased by 11.6%. The same decline in ability to carry out similar tasks can be seen at levels of 1000 ppm* of CO2. Typically, office environments lie somewhere around the 1000 ppm mark, but those with higher occupancy can read peak values of over 3000 ppm.  

To put this in perspective, a BAC reading of 0.10% for an average man is typical after drinking two pints of beer and for a woman, one and a half pints – it is also above the drink drive limit.

Performance drops as the level of alcohol intoxication increases. In the City last year Lloyds Bank announced a daytime drinking ban, sending this message to their employees:

“Drinking alcohol affects individuals differently. A zero limit is therefore simpler, more consistent and in line with the modern, global and high performance culture that we want to embrace.”

Many studies on CO2 and cognitive function have shown that there is a performance decline as levels rise. If a similar effect between performance and alcohol can be drawn between performance and CO2 levels, then surely a case can be made to regulate CO2 with the same seriousness?

By lowering CO2 in the workplace to 500-600 ppm, from the 1000 ppm mark, we can approximate that there will be an 8-11% improvement in performance. In the world of economics, improvements in employee output leads to higher productivity. UK productivity fell 0.6% last year and we are currently 16% less productive than our G7 competitors. As a result, we should be looking to implement strategies to get the best out of our workforce.

“Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything,” – Paul Krugman

For businesses it is possible to quantify the benefits of creating healthier spaces, based on salary and hourly output. A study by Harvard University has produced figures for Return on Investment (ROI) as a result of investment in ventilation improvement. At a cost of $40 per head the ventilation was doubled and the CO2 levels fell from 1000 ppm to 600 ppm. Cognitive function tests showed increased productivity of 8% which was the equivalent to $6,500** per employee each year. Tests showed that an employee on a salary of $57,660 was producing an hourly output of someone earning $64,160.

For so long we have underestimated the importance of indoor environmental quality on our health and productivity. Today’s culture is focussed on pushing harder and working longer hours rather than maximising our potential and improving the quality of core time spent at work.

If your workplace is guilty of a high CO2 environment, you’re not alone. However, the time has come to become aware of our air and start making a difference. Measuring and monitoring our environments is the key to making a positive change, using the power of knowledge to improve productivity.

*CO2 levels are measured as ppm (Parts Per Million). The standard outdoor level is around 350ppm. Indoors, levels may reach 600ppm without any adverse effects, above this you may start to notice symptoms.

**$6,500 was the average across all job roles. When the occupational data was sub-setted to only management occupations, the difference in salaries was greater, at $15,500.

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