Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a collection of symptoms reported by many workers in the same building. These symptoms—headache, dry eyes, persistent cough, dizziness, nausea, and difficulty concentrating—typically resolve after leaving the building. SBS was originally blamed on physical aspects of the location, such as poor air ventilation or airborne mold or bacteria. However, research has failed to prove these physical factors cause SBS. More recent studies suggest that psychosocial factors leading to job stress are responsible for SBS symptoms.

Researchers in London set out to determine if SBS symptoms are linked to the physical or psychosocial aspects of a job. The findings, published in the March 2006 issue of Occupational and Environmental Medicine , show that the psychosocial aspects of work—high job demands, low support, and lack of control over physical environment—were associated with the symptoms of SBS. Physical characteristics of the buildings were not significantly linked to its symptoms.

About the Study

Researchers from University College London Medical School collected data from the ongoing Whitehall II study of government office workers. As part of the study, 4,052 participants completed a survey about the incidence of SBS symptoms as well as the psychosocial aspects of their jobs—the intangible factors such as job demands and level of support. Separately, researchers evaluated 29 of the 44 buildings in which participants worked; they looked at air flow, humidity, dust, mold, and similar factors. Each person was assigned an SBS symptom score. The researchers looked for associations among symptom scores and the physical and psychosocial environments.

Physical attributes of the buildings had little effect on the incidence of SBS symptoms. What did have a significant effect, though, were the psychosocial factors that increase job stress. Workers with demanding jobs, little support, and no control over their work stations (e.g., unable to adjust temperature or lighting), were most likely to report SBS symptoms. These findings remained significant even after considering the effects of age, sex, and level of employment.

Since it was not feasible to evaluate every workstation, researchers visited ten work areas in each building, and used this data to represent the whole building. The findings may have been more convincing if more workstations were examined.

How Does This Affect You?

Does sick building syndrome exist? Yes it does, but it apparently needs a new name. The symptoms of SBS are very real for many people who work in today’s fast-paced, high-stress world. Don’t ignore persistent headaches, eye strain, nausea, or other symptoms of SBS; these may be signs that your job stress is interfering with your health. Talk with your manager or a member of the human resources department about your concerns. Search for feasible ways to control your work environment and make your workload more manageable.

Although this study did not find evidence of a connection between workers’ physical environment and SBS, this does not mean that all of the symptoms are unrelated to poor indoor air quality. Inadequate ventilation, in particular, can certainly lead to human health problems, particular of the respiratory system.

If your employees show signs of SBS, consider both physical and psychosocial causes. The American Psychological Association advises that managers be flexible and responsive to their employees’ needs. Factors such as flexible work schedules, team-based problem solving, and employee involvement in decision making go a long way in building a healthy company. And, don’t forget about the physical environment. A safe, comfortable workplace is a key factor in supporting healthy, productive workers.