August 6, 2019
You walk into the conference room with a sharp mind and a clear objective. Twenty minutes later, your eyes are glazing over, your focus is waning, and you’re struggling to keep up with the conversation. No matter how much you try to corral your attention, you can’t seem to shake the dazed feeling that has overtaken the room.
If this scenario sounds familiar, we’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is: it’s probably not your fault. The bad news is: the carbon dioxide in your conference room could be impacting your mental prowess.
When people become distracted or tired in meetings, we tend to blame the presenter, the material, or the short attention spans of the audience. But what if the real culprit is our indoor air quality?
Although most indoor air pollution is invisible, it impacts our mental and physical health in a variety of ways. Below, we’ve laid out some salient reasons to pay attention to carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in your next company meeting.
There’s a scientific explanation for the trance-like state depicted above. When lots of people are crowded into a small space, the CO2 being produced and exhaled into the air by those individuals becomes more concentrated. Most modern buildings are designed to be airtight (to improve energy efficiency), which means that natural airflow is limited and proper ventilation is paramount. If your conference room lacks functioning windows, fans, and vents, CO2 concentrations can increase to around 2,500 parts per million (ppm) — about five times higher than what’s considered healthy. In some schools, researchers have recorded CO2 levels upwards of 5,000 ppm.
When CO2 is inhaled in high concentrations, it impedes our brain’s ability to metabolize oxygen. This decreases neural activity and ultimately makes it more difficult to think clearly. In cases of extreme and prolonged exposure, this drop in brain activity can prove fatal. Although conference room CO2 doesn’t reach such toxic extremes, studies have shown that even a moderate rise in CO2 levels can impact cognitive performance in a major way.
To investigate the effects of indoor air quality on workplace performance, a group of Harvard researchers created an environmentally-controlled office and tested workers’ cognitive functioning in “green” and “conventional” building conditions. The cognitive test they administered was designed to evaluate workers’ performance in nine categories, including:
As researchers incrementally increased CO2 levels, subjects' test scores decreased across almost every category. On days when CO2 and VOCs levels were low (simulating green building conditions), participants scored 61 percent higher on cognitive tests than they did in conventional building conditions.
This difference was even more profound on days when researchers increased the rate of outdoor ventilation (a condition they classified as “Green+”) into the office. Participants scored 101 percent higher on cognitive tests in Green+ building conditions than in conventional building conditions, suggesting that good building ventilation is essential to ensure employees function at their best.
Sick Building Syndrome, or SBS, is the name given to a variety of health symptoms associated with poor indoor air quality. Generally, symptoms will worsen the more time a person spends inside the polluted building and improve upon leaving. In addition to reducing workplace satisfaction, SBS has been known to decrease employee productivity and lead to higher absentee rates — two things that directly impact a company’s bottom line.
Symptoms of SBS can include headaches, respiratory and skin irritation, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, nausea, allergy, cold, and flu-like symptoms. SBS is typically the result of a variety of environmental factors, including indoor CO2, PM2.5, VOCs, temperature, and humidity levels. That said, one study found that simply decreasing CO2 levels could reduce the prevalence of certain SBS symptoms (such as fatigue and headaches) by up to 85 percent.
The next time you feel yourself losing steam or falling into an infinite conversation loop, take a moment to reflect on your indoor air quality. Does it feel warm and stuffy in the room? Has it been a while since you shut the conference room door? Do you feel less alert than you did even a few minutes earlier?
When in doubt, crack a window, open the door, run a fan, take a walk, and reconvene in a well-ventilated environment. We can’t promise that doing so will eliminate all bad ideas, but it will help ensure that you’re sharp enough to tell the difference.
One of the easiest ways to track changes in CO2 levels is by using an air quality monitor. In addition to providing real-time insight into your air quality, tracking indoor pollution will help you determine when to open a window, when to upgrade your ventilation system, and what behaviors are impacting the health and productivity of your office.
Awair Omni tracks CO2, fine dust (PM2.5), toxic chemicals (VOCs), temperature, humidity, light, and noise levels in your space and gives you the insight you need to breathe easier and function at your best. To learn more about how Awair Omni is used in offices like yours, follow the link below.
You dedicate so much time to keeping your home clean, but you could be missing a spot — your air. Unfortunately, that can sometimes be one of the dirtiest parts of your home; in fact, our indoor air can be five times more polluted than outside, which can affect allergies, asthma, eczema, sleep quality, and can cause more serious health problems.
In December, I joined Awair as a key advisor and board member. I first became interested in the company after meeting its founders and hearing about their dedication to studying and improving indoor air quality. While they started the company to improve their children’s lives, their products can help anyone measure indoor air quality in real time. To me, that creates an enormous opportunity to improve people’s lives everywhere.