While almost every office will occasionally suffer from a round of colds, some offices seems to be constantly in the grip of an epidemic of runny noses, headaches and single days of sick leave. When this affects the business, it is known as Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) and is usually the result of one or more of the SBS factors – the building, the working environment or the allocation of work.
Why Care about SBS?
As an employer or manager, it is your duty to your staff and the business to know about SBS and if you suspect it, to investigate the cause. Unaddressed, SBS leads to increased absenteeism, reduced staff efficiency, extended breaks, increased staff turnover and sometimes longer-lasting health complaints.
How to Investigate and Identify The Problem
The main symptoms connected with SBS are stuffy noses and sneezing; headaches and backaches; dry or itchy skin; dry or itchy eyes; and general feelings of irritability, lethargy and poor concentration. The symptoms are often mild enough to allow staff to continue coming into work but this will compound a feeling of resentment as employees may notice, these symptoms disappear during absences from the office.
SBS is not a virus or a recognised illness but rather a set of symptoms. However, all symptoms have a cause. Your first investigation should be of the physical environment. Check that ventilation systems are clean and well maintained and that appropriate cleaning products are being used.
Also investigate the office lighting. All employees should be able to see daylight and office lighting should be comfortable and free from flickering. Make sure that the office temperature conforms to the appropriate guidelines.
Next, make sure that all workstation layouts conform to HSE standards. This includes ergonomic seating; screens and monitors set at the correct level; and staff being able to move from their station and around the office without interference. Make sure that every piece of office equipment has its place and is easily reached.
Your third point of inspection is more challenging. We are increasingly recognising that good physical health relies upon good mental health. Many individual jobs are not designed; rather, tasks need to be covered and someone is hired to perform them.
The biggest sufferers of task-related SBS are those employed in routine clerical work, such as book keeping and secretarial work. These tasks require concentration and precision but don’t include the challenges associated with the development and maintenance of good mental fitness.
How to Combat Sick Building Syndrome
The unfortunate truth is, SBS is rarely alleviated by small measures. Environmental issues might require a new office space. A poor office layout will require a complete overhaul.
Redesigning job tasks will interfere with office practices and hierarchies. As ever, prevention is better than cure. The best approach to fighting SBS is to make sure that you know what it is and know how to prevent it – before it becomes a problem in your office.
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