Blame Climate Change for Making You Less Productive at Work

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Is there anything in this world so fickle as an office thermostat?

No. The answer is no, there is not. I’ve kept a Snuggie underneath my desk at every job I’ve ever had, only to perform the same ritual of pulling my arms in and out of those glorious blanket sleeves roughly ten times a day as the air conditioning waxes and wanes. I’d say the constantly fluctuating temperature at least keeps employees on their toes, but, well, sometimes it gets hot, and then people just get sleepy. And sometimes it gets really, really cold, and people are too busy wrapping their fingers around paper cups full of hot tea to use them for things like typing.

Turns out, though, you may have a handy scapegoat for all those unproductive spurts. In Smithsonian today, Joshua Rapp Learn explained how climate change is contributing to less-than-optimal conditions for office workers: In some places, increased rainfall and rougher storms mean buildings will begin experiencing greater mold buildup, which can cause respiratory problems and other issues. Warmer temperatures also mean higher levels of ozone, which can react with other chemicals, such as cleaning fluids, to cause allergylike symptoms. And paradoxically, buildings that attempt to be more eco-friendly may also exacerbate these problems, creating energy-efficient sealed environments that recirculate harmful airborne chemicals.

All these are factors in something called “sick building syndrome,” which the Environmental Protection Agency has described as “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building, but no specific illness or cause can be identified.” (This is in contrast to “building-related illness,” in which symptoms can be traced to poor air quality within a building.)

Carbon dioxide may also affect workers’ performance, Learn reported, particularly in crowded spaces:

Rising carbon dioxide levels are one of the main problems inside buildings, according to John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health. CO2 levels hit 400 parts per million in our atmosphere last May, according to readings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. But Spengler says that CO2 levels in office buildings can be double this amount due to the presence of people inside breathing.

A recent study he was involved in shows that higher CO2 levels can affect work productivity. The researchers gave a number of tests to subjects exposed to different levels of CO2 and found that workers subjected to CO2 levels of 1,000 parts per million or higher showed shortcomings in decision making. Office buildings currently measure around 600 to 1,200 ppm, but these numbers will rise as outside CO2 levels increase with climate change.

But revamping office buildings to combat these effects on workers’ health, as Learn noted, is easier said than done, in part because of mismatched incentives: The workers who would benefit from the changes, in most cases, aren’t the ones shelling out for them. In the meantime, although the air in the office probably isn’t getting much healthier anytime soon, it can be more tolerable; I’d humbly suggest investing in a good blanket, preferably one with sleeves.