Too many sick leaves?

Your office space may be the reason for your frequent ill health

sick man at homeWe often feel that staying indoors in our homes or offices will shelter us from the vagaries of the weather, the pollution and the threat of diseases that constantly looms outside. However, staying indoors can also give rise to a number of health problems.

This relatively unknown phenomenon is called Sick Building Syndrome [SBS]. As the name suggests, this syndrome occurs when occupants or workers of a building fall ill due to the faulty planning or design of a building.

Although there is no specific symptom, those suffering from SBS often complain of:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Eye, nose or throat irritation
  • Dry cough
  • Itchy skin
  • Difficulty in concentration
  • Allergies
  • Increased asthma attacks
  • Fatigue, aches and pains, and sensitivity to odours.

This term first came into existence in the 1970s when the medical community realised that the increase in the use of electronic equipment was probably contributing to the number of health hazards that the common man is suffering. Office buildings are the prime location of this.

However, it can also be found at any place that houses people [like schools, communal buildings and residential buildings] who complain of similar health problems.

To ascertain if people in a particular building are suffering from SBS, they should match their pattern of symptoms to the following points:

  • Time spent in the building contributes to the symptoms.
  • The symptoms cease to exist when a person is not in that space.
  • The symptoms change as per seasons i.e. in summer the population may be suffering from a certain set of problems while in the winters the problems may be different.
  • Co-workers complain of similar health issues.

This syndrome is different from building-related illnesses where the problems can be identified through proper diagnosis. A building-related illness is attributed to the contaminants in the air in and around the building.

In SBS, the actual cause of the illness is difficult to determine as there are a host of factors resulting in this malady and the symptoms are vague.

The common causes that lead to people being afflicted by this syndrome are:

Inadequate ventilation

Poor ventilation is one of the top causes of SBS due to insufficient air to breathe. Poor design and construction of buildings with the aim to fit in as many offices as possible to increase the saleable area of the building contributes to the hazard. Symptoms arising out of this problem are headaches, drowsiness and shortness of breath.

To combat these, leave the windows open to allow natural light and air to enter the space. This helps in cross ventilation. If there aren’t any windows to open, you can even take periodic walks outside.

Chemical contaminants

These include pollutants that can come into office spaces due to poorly located air conditioner ducts, windows or other openings that are close to motor or building exhausts [bathroom and kitchen].

Chemicals like formaldehyde, asbestos, lead paint and dust add to contaminant mix. Volatile organic compounds [VOCs] like pesticides, cleaning agents, adhesives, upholstery, carpets and copy machines also result in this syndrome.

Here the symptoms are constant cough and cold, itchy skin and a nagging irritation in the eyes, nose or throat.

Ensure that all windows facing busy roads or thoroughfares remain closed during peak traffic hours. Bring this to the notice of your company and suggest using natural cleaning agents instead of chemical cleansers.

Also suggest that cleaning agents be in a separate cabinet, away from the main functional areas. Once again, going out for walks will help you get some fresh air. You can also strengthen your lungs by practising pranayama before you enter the building.

Biological contaminants

These include factors like fungus, moulds, virus, bacteria, and pollen. Humidifiers, drainpipes or ducts where there is possibility of water stagnation are the main breeding sites. Symptoms that are seen in this case are an increase in asthma attacks, allergies and nausea.

If you and more of your colleagues display the above symptoms, get the concerned authorities to check malfunctioning air vents, ducts or drainage systems in your workspace. If that’s not possible, talk to your manager about relocating your work station to another place, away from the allergens.

Poor work environment

Factors like inadequate or improper lighting, poor ergonomics, and extreme temperatures also result in health problems. It has been observed that the symptoms of this syndrome are predominantly seen in people with clerical jobs than people in managerial positions as the latter have better working conditions.

It is a known fact now that dimly lit rooms cause physical discomfort and dizziness. Poor ergonomics also make a worker prone to body aches and pains. This in turn leads to loss of concentration. Extreme temperatures cause flu-like symptoms.

Simple changes can help you overcome these. Add a lamp to your desk; adjust the height of the chair as per your comfort. Or buy special cushions that give you adequate back support. Request the concerned authorities to get the temperature regulated. If it is too cold, keep a spare jacket or sweater at work and if too hot, wear clothes made of natural fabric.

Electromagnetic radiation

Our surrounding air is ionised by the electromagnetic radiation emitted by gadgets like computers, televisions and microwaves, which are harmful for our body [For more on EMR, read Home Truths and Getting Buzzed]. In extreme cases where proper grounding hasn’t been done of the wiring, it may also lead to cancer.

Electromagnetic radiation can cause nausea, constant headaches, blurred vision and dizziness.Minimum use of gadgets and also use of accessories like reflective covers on computer screens to prevent the harmful effects of radiation should be tried. It is also good to take a break in between work so that the body gets a little rest before resuming again.


Psychological factors like workplace stress, lack of communication and poor interpersonal relationships have been associated with this condition.

The capacity of different individuals to handle stress varies. It is important for an employee to understand that deadlines are important, but not a life-threatening event. Learning to look at workplace targets in the right perspective helps keep stress levels down.

Stress manifests itself not only in personality changes but also leads to psychosomatic conditions like vomiting, body ache and feeling of nausea.

If you and other people from your office or office building are experiencing similar symptoms, don’t take them lightly. They are harmful to your health and your career as they hamper productivity. Make as many people aware of this condition so that they can protect their health too.

Jalil D Parkar is a Chest Medicine Specialist at Lilavati Hospital & Research Centre.


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