Building on sickness research

MOST of us tend to feel tired, run down and generally under the weather pretty much all of the time, yet there s no particular cure or even a specific name, other than the modern condition perhaps. Quite often, the symptoms lift when we jet off somewher

MOST of us tend to feel tired, run down and generally under the weather pretty much all of the time, yet there's no particular cure or even a specific name, other than 'the modern condition' perhaps.

Quite often, the symptoms lift when we jet off somewhere nice and relaxing on hols, but the minute it's all over and we set foot back in Blighty again, they descend upon us once more, like a heavy blanket or a lingering bad smell that simply won't lift or shift.

Sometimes, however, this general feeling of lethargy - and many other symptoms that tend to go with it like headaches, blocked noses and skin allergies - are attributed to something called Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), which got its name because office staff thought their workplace was to blame for causing the ailments they were suffering with.

But new research, by a team at University College London (UCL), is suggesting this simply isn't the case. Far from 'unhealthy' buildings being the root of all evil and making us feel horrible, researchers insist that SBS is a hallmark of job stress and a lack of support in the workplace.

Whatever you want to call it, there's no denying that the syndrome costs UK businesses millions of pounds every year in lost productivity and sickness absence.

Yet up until now, scientific studies and research have failed to identify any clear link between particular properties of buildings and the symptoms employees experience when spending so much time inside them.

Most Read

Authors of the report quizzed more than 4,000 civil servants, aged between 42 and 62, working in 44 different buildings across London. They asked about several aspects of their health, including the cluster of symptoms - affecting the eyes, head, nose, throat and skin - that define SBS, the physical properties of their offices, and the demands of their job, including the levels of support they got at work.

They found that women tend to have higher rates of SBS symptoms than men, and symptom rates fall with increasing age.

Overall, one in seven men and around one in five women reported five or more symptoms of the syndrome.

However, there was little correlation between this sort of ill health and the buildings the staff worked in.

In fact, those working in noisy offices with high levels of fungi and chemicals in the air were among the most healthy.

The most significant factor associated with such symptoms, however, was high job demands and low levels of support in the workplace, according to the UCL team.

One of the researchers, Dr Mai Stafford, explained: "Although we measured lots of physical properties of the buildings, we couldn't find any consistent association between them and the symptoms people were reporting.

"But what was consistently associated was job stress, in terms of how much control staff had over their job, whether their job was demanding and how much support they got from their colleagues."

Dr Stafford thinks bosses, therefore, shouldn't take cases of SBS at face value, suggesting that they look at reducing job demands instead, or increasing people's flexibility and variety.

"They could also look at whether management is supportive and giving consistent and clear information," she added.

"If an employee has these symptoms, they might want to appraise their own job."

Writing in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers added that SBS symptoms are "more about the jobs people do than the physical environment of their building or workstation where the job is performed".

But they emphasise that their research is not a cue for businesses to start skimping on comfort in the workplace, saying: "These findings should not be interpreted as justification for assuming that the quality of the physical environment of the workplace is unimportant."

They concluded: "Comfort and perceived satisfaction with environmental conditions within buildings should not be ignored."

So it seems that although bricks, breezeblocks, mortar and plaster do not themselves make workers cough and splutter, inspiring coloured walls, pretty pictures and job satisfaction can all make a real difference to the well-being of staff - and how many days a year they call in sick.