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Reducing carbon emissions and the carbon footprint in daily office operations is on the green agenda for many employers, and recent research confirms too much carbon dioxide is not only bad for the environment, it also affects staff well-being and job performance.
Published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the study by scientists at Harvard University and Syracuse University suggested that CO2 levels considered harmless in many office buildings are actually high enough to impair human health.
The researchers recruited 24 knowledge workers who normally spend their time in an office – like architects, designers, and engineers – and had them work eight-hour days in a simulated office.
For several of those workdays, the researchers manipulated the level of CO2 in the office, so that it fell at either a low, moderate, or high level (550 ppm, 945 ppm, or 1,400 ppm) for the day.
It is generally understood that CO2 levels of below 5,000 ppm are considered safe in an indoor environment. Indoor CO2 concentrations are determined by the number of people in a space, the ventilation rate of the building, and the concentration of CO2 outdoors.
The lowest level, 550 ppm is pretty close to levels outdoors and and represents a very well-ventilated building, whereas 945 ppm to 1,400 ppm are the typical CO2 levels found in most offices.
During the CO2 trials, participants went about their normal workday, and both they and the researchers were blind to the air conditions in the simulated office.
In the afternoon, participants were given a 1.5 hour cognitive assessment to test how that day’s CO2 level affected their high-order decision-making skills.
The results showed a clear trend: less CO2 improves cognitive function.
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Compared to the lowest CO2 level (550 ppm), people scored 15% worse on the test for the moderate CO2 day (945 ppm) and 50% worse on the high CO2 day (1,400 ppm).
The researchers also broke down participants’ cognitive function into different categories, and found that higher CO2 levels most hurt people’s ability to use information, respond to crisis, and their overall productivity.
Research author Joseph Allen, an assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said the results suggested that businesses could benefit from increasing ventilation in the office to keep CO2 low.
It may improve their employees’ health as well as their performance at work.