The Cost of Unhealthy Air

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February 5, 2018

If you’re looking to reduce costs throughout 2018, the effective solution you need is also the one you least expect: improving your workplace air quality.

Many of us assume the air we’re breathing is safe and healthy, but this isn’t necessarily the case--especially for indoor air, which can be 5x more polluted than outdoor air. Air quality can have a profound effect on the health of a business; particularly “unhealthy” air can reduce productivity and revenues by 10%.

How exactly is your workplace’s air quality affecting your bottom line? Companies that invest in maintaining healthy air quality levels enjoy incremental benefits such as...

Higher Absenteeism

Particularly unhealthy air can aggravate allergies, asthma, eczema, hives, and even cause chronic flu-like symptoms including headaches, nausea, and fatigue. Poor air quality can also trigger common respiratory illnesses such as the flu, pneumonia, bronchitis, and the common cold--all of which cause 176 million “sick days” in the United States every year, according to a study conducted by the Indoor Environment Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Creating a healthy work environment with an emphasis on clean indoor air can improve employee health and wellness, leading to fewer absences--which ultimately contributes to cost savings. A report released by the World Green Building Council found that workplaces with healthy indoor air experience 35% less absences from short term sick leave.

Reduced Performance and Productivity

Aside from affecting employee health, poor air quality can also have a direct effect on employee performance. In a joint study led by Harvard University, work environments that emphasized healthy indoor air quality saw an increase of productivity in the average employee, and estimated an increased value of $15,500 per employee per year.

Unhealthy workplace air can decrease employee productivity in two ways:

Carbon Dioxide

Each person exhales about 2.3 pounds of carbon dioxide each day, and while it’s not necessarily a toxic gas, it has been proven to have a profound impact on one’s ability to focus. Carbon dioxide is notorious for causing drowsiness, lack of concentration, and confusion.

A recent lab-based study used simulated decision-making tasks to determine that increased levels of carbon dioxide (from 600 parts per million to 1,000 ppm) have a negative effect, with a 23% decline in productivity in some cases. Crowded conference rooms and even open floor plans run the risk of easily reaching 1,000 ppm, which is still considered to be acceptable in most workplaces.


We know temperature plays a role in overall comfort, but it can also have a profound impact on productivity. Too high or low office temperatures can be distracting to employees to a point that is counterproductive.

The ideal temperature for productivity is between 70°F and  77°F. Studies testing productivity outside these ranges have seen a decrease in employee productivity by 4% in colder temperatures and by 6% in warmer ones. Going the extra mile and providing personal control of workspace temperature has also shown 3% gains in overall productivity.

Higher Building Costs

If you don't have good building airflow and ventilation, chances are you're spending more on heat and AC to compensate. Having an intimate understanding of workplace air quality can also help reduce excess building costs. Measures taken to create a healthy indoor environment--such as regulating office levels of airborne chemicals (VOCs), dust (PM 2.5 and PM 10), carbon dioxide, temperature, and humidity—can often lead to more fiscally responsible uses of indoor appliances and HVAC systems. For example, an analysis conducted by Carnegie Mellon was able to conclude that a 47-79% HVAC energy savings could be achieved through indoor air quality best-practices such as improved ventilation.

Take Control of Your Workplace Environment

Maintaining workplace indoor air quality has measurable benefits to any company’s bottom line, and achieving improved levels of employee wellness, productivity, and overall ROI is much more attainable than it seems.