'Sick building syndrome' hallmark of job stress and lack of support, not unhealthy surroundings

"Sick building syndrome" is a hallmark of job stress and lack of support rather than an unhealthy building, suggests research in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

The authors base their findings on more than 4000 civil servants aged between 42 and 62, working in 44 different buildings across London.

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 civil servants were surveyed about their health, including the symptom cluster defining sick building syndrome, the physical properties of their offices, and the demands of their job, including levels of support at work.

The results showed that women tended to have higher rates of sick building syndrome symptoms than men, and symptom rates fell with increasing age..

Overall, one in seven of the men and around one in five of the women reported five or more symptoms of the syndrome.

There was some suggestion that high levels of symptoms were associated with temperatures outside the recommended range, poor relative humidity, airborne bacteria and dust.

But 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.

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

Higher levels of symptom reporting seem to be "due less to poor physical conditions than to a working environment characterised by poor psychosocial conditions," they say.

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," suggest the authors.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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