It seems that work-related stress, instead of building conditions, may be what’s behind the group of symptoms known as “sick building syndrome,” according to researchers.

A study undertaken of over 4,000 UK government employees found that high levels of demand on the job and perceptions of poor support were more closely related to sick-building symptoms than the physical conditions of the workplace.

These findings suggest that the term “sick building syndrome” may just be a misnomer, as reported by the researchers in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. That’s not to say the symptoms aren’t real, but that the physical conditions of the workplace might not be the major cause, according to study co-author Dr. Mai Stafford of University College London Medical School.

“The symptoms certainly exist,” Stafford told Reuters Health, “and cost millions in lost productivity (and) sickness absence.”

Sick building syndrome refers to a myriad of symptoms, including headache, eye irritation and fatigue, and nasal congestion, that appear to arise when a person is in a particular indoor environment. Studies, however, have not found consistent connections between symptoms and specific physical conditions of the buildings.

However, report Stafford et al, there is growing evidence that job stress – especially the combination of demanding work and little autonomy – has health effects, and that the physical reactions to stress are similar to the symptoms attributed to sick building syndrome.

The research team analyzed data from 4,052 civil servants working in 44 buildings across London. Individuals were surveyed about their symptoms, as well as stress in the workplace and the conditions of their work space.

In some buildings, scientists took environmental measurements of temperature, dust, airborne fungus, humidity, and bacteria, as well as other conditions.

There was overall evidence that the heat and humidity of the workplace, as well as levels of dust and bacteria, were related to employees’ symptoms. However, there was a much stronger relationship between symptoms and job-related stress – namely, demanding work and the perception of little support from colleagues and superiors.

In addition, the researchers unexpectedly found a lower prevalence of symptoms at sites with poor air circulation and “unacceptable” levels of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, airborne fungi and carbon dioxide. The researchers add that none of this means that poor or uncomfortable physical conditions are acceptable in a working environment.

Stafford and her colleagues conclude that the findings suggest the psychological and social environment in workers’ buildings should be taken into consideration when workers are bothered by fatigue, headaches and other symptoms commonly thought to be “sick building syndrome.”

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