Is your workplace building making you sick?

August 28 2017 / by Mari Ryan


For decades now, we’ve been hearing about creating healthy workplaces. That has predominately focused on wellness programs and creating cultures of health. During that same timeframe, we’ve been hearing about the green and sustainable buildings. But what’s so interesting about green/sustainability efforts is that they focused on the energy efficiency of the building but not about the people inside them. Since we spend as much as 90% of our lives indoors, it’s about time that the impact buildings can have on our health is being examined. The good news is that there is an increasing body of research on what a healthy building is and how the way buildings are designed, built, and operated can have a direct impact on an individual’s health.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, they have established the Healthy Building Program and published “The 9 Foundations of a Healthy Building”. In 2013, the International Well Building Institute was founded to provide standards that support health and wellbeing.

The research in the emerging field of healthy buildings defines these key elements of a healthy building:

  • Air quality. Air quality is more than having a non-smoking workplace. Poor air quality can impact workers with asthma or allergies, and can cause fatigue and headaches.  Air quality includes topics such as ventilation effectiveness, air filtration, ventilation, pesticide management, cleaning protocols, humidity control, operable windows, and toxic material reduction.
  • Water. An essential element of life, water lubricates joints, aides in waste elimination, and helps maintain normal body temperature. As much as 61% of drinking water consumed in the US comes from the tap. (1) Water quality topics address contaminants, treatment, additives, and availability.
  • Nourishment. Food is another essential element of life. It’s not just about eating, but about what we eat. Nourishment focuses on building design and policies that increase access to healthy food options. Nourishment also addresses: hand washing, food allergies, safe food preparation, food storage, promotion and environmental cues.
  • Light. You don’t have to be spending hours in windowless conference rooms to gain an appreciation for the role light plays in our daily life. Light influences our circadian rhythms and our internal clock. This is all light, not just sunlight. Light topics focus on window access, sunlight exposure, and solar and screen glare,
  • Fitness. Our bodies are meant to move. Physical activity supports promotes health by helping maintain healthy bones, preventing chronic disease and managing weight. Elements of the built environment can encourage movement and discourage sedentariness. Fitness focus includes access to active workstations, standing desks, active transportation storage, access to fitness equipment and staircase design, accessibility and promotion.
  • Comfort. This is a broader category that can include thermal comfort, acoustics, ergonomics and olfactory. Addressing these topics can help reduce stress, and improve productivity and overall wellbeing.
  • Mind. Our mind and body are one. A focus on mental and emotional health in the workplace, is garnering much more attention. The American Psychological Associations reports Americans’ overall average reported stress level rose from 4.8 to 5.1 on a 10-point scale in 2016. (2)  Policies that address mood, sleep, stress levels and psychosocial status promote overall health and wellbeing.

You don’t have to be an architect, building contractor or owner to incorporate these elements in to your building (although all of them can!). Working with your building owner or facilities department, these resources help you begin to make your workplace healthy for everyone. Where will you start?

Works cited:

1 US Department of Agriculture (2011). Drinking Water Intake in the U.S. What we Eat in America, NHANES 2005-2008, USDA Food Surveys Research Group, Dietary Data Brief No. 7, September 2011.

2 Stress in America: Coping with Change. American Psychological Association. 2017

Topics: Personal health, Worksite Wellness, Worksite Culture

Mari Ryan

Written by Mari Ryan

Mari Ryan is the CEO/founder of AdvancingWellness and is a recognized expert in the field of workplace well-being strategy.