Professor Derek Clements-Croome

Professor Derek Clements-Croome

Ann Marie Aguilar

Ann Marie Aguilar

BT clean air project

BT clean air project

Healthier Workplaces & Cultures White Paper

Friday 24 February, 2017

Our thanks to Professor Emeritus Derek Clements-Croome (Reading University) and Ann Marie Aguilar (IWBI-WELL Faculty) who presented at our first seminar of 2017, hosted at Kinnarps London showroom.

The Green Council report on Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, stated that, overwhelmingly, research demonstrates that the design of an office has a material impact on the health, wellbeing and productivity of its occupants.  Whilst to many of us this would seem obvious it hasn’t been translated into significant investment in environments that tackle the impact of a poorly performing workplace on its occupants.

Could this be down to the lack of measurable data on the impact on people of the buildings performance and working culture?  Sitting within organisations are huge amounts of relevant information that could be used to assess the tangible impacts of the workplace on the performance of its people, they need proper collation and assessment and turning into reports that can be used to formulate an approach and return on investment strategy, that tackles the well-being issues.

In addition to the environmental impacts on people’s health and well-being are cultural ones too.  The recent announcement by the Faculty of Dental Surgery stating that eating cake and biscuits at work was fuelling obesity and poor oral health, is only one aspect of poor understanding of the cultures within workplaces and their potential detrimental impact on the work force.  Eating cake with colleagues is about much more than your teeth and waistline.


Current medical and academic research is providing a wealth of evidence of links from workplace environments and cultures to poor health and performance.  For the employee these are impacting their personal health, well-being and morale.  For the employer these are impacting business outcomes through poor productivity, significant absenteeism, early retirement and health related claims. 

We have not yet evolved to cope with working in large numbers in sealed buildings deprived of fresh air and natural light.  The result is a partly detected epidemic of workplace well-being issues, variously attributed to:

  • Lack of job security

  • Management bullying

  • Racial & social tensions

  • The Government

  • Poor workplace design

Recent research by Reading University, Cromwell Hospital, US Department of Labour Occupational Safety & Health and others shows that 60-70% of the problem is in the workplace environment. Assessing the combination of environmental stressors on the human physiology will offer a solution based on measurable data and in turn provide a healthier workplace that treats workers like athletes, supplying them with an environment that enables them to perform better and deliver a first class service.  The result will be a space that will increase productivity, reduce absenteeism, improve morale and deliver greater profitability for the organisation, its staff and customers.

WELL building standard

The standard provides a model for design and construction to integrate human health features into the built environment, giving a performance-based measurement of the impact those settings have on how we function.  Given we now spend 90% of our time indoors (at home, work or travelling between the two) and 90% of us say our feelings about work are adversely affected by poor workplace quality, this really matters in terms of productivity, retention and the bottom line, quite apart from how we treat our people

Impact of ill health

A shocking 131 million days sick were taken in the UK in 2015 costing the UK economy an estimated £16 billion.  That averages 6.5 days a year per employee.  The key causes of stress and illness at work are:

  • Poor lighting

  • Poor air quality

  • Poor air temperature

  • Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR)

  • Synthetic fibres

  • Bad workplace ergonomics

  • Poor acoustics

  • Lack of visual stimulation

There is a growing requirement upon employers to fulfil a duty of care to their employees including the mitigation of potentially harmful conditions in the workplace.

More and more employers are increasingly concerned about the health of their employees at work in order to:

  • Maximise innovation and productivity

  • Reduce absenteeism

  • Provide an improved working environment to attract and maintain a healthy staff

  • Reduce litigation and claims due to stress related illness


Professor Clements-Croome has worked with environmental consultants, on trials in real office environments in many different types of office buildings.  His research shows that by addressing all of the above areas the incidence of adverse health symptoms can be reduced by up to 80%, giving productivity increases of up to 30%.  It is the first three of these areas, lighting, air quality and a lack of thermal individual control which are most readily acknowledged, by office staff and experts as the principal sources of ill-health.  EMR emitted from computers and mobile telephones is another possibility but the evidence is still in debate.

By providing solutions in the three areas of lighting, air quality and thermal control alone, independent tests clearly show that adverse health symptoms in the office can be reduced by over 40% giving increases in productivity of around 15%.


The adverse effects of poor lighting can be readily solved with the use of full spectrum, polarised lighting which is now starting to be installed as standard in new office buildings where the productivity and health of staff is being put at the forefront of office design.


Clean air

The use of an air purifier/ioniser removes dust and other airborne contaminants and replenishes and maintains the balance of positive and negative ions in the air. 

This has been shown to improve people’s health and lead to increased productivity.  The graph is from a BT pilot project showing productivity indicators (green and blue lines) demonstrating the combined effect of polarised lighting, air ionisation and filtration over a three month moving average.  The subsequent rise in sick days (red line) shown was due to failure to change air conditioning filters as scheduled, showing just what a sensitive factor this is:

CO2 Levels

The build-up of Carbon Dioxide within workplaces and schools has been shown to cause drowsiness, reduction in decision making and productivity even at levels that are well below industry standards.  As organisations attempt to put more people into buildings and increase utilisation this will become even more important to monitor and regulate.  Checking levels and the time required for them to diminish should become a matter of course.  Meeting rooms with poor ventilation used all day will have very high levels by the time the 4pm starts.

Electro-Magnetic Radiation

The effects of EMR are still in debate and there is no certainty how EMR affects health.  It is vital we keep reviewing the research and cases where ill effects are reported.

Synthetic Fibres

Synthetic fibres from carpets and upholstery are a major source of respiratory and skin irritation.  They also retain a high electrostatic charge.  Carpets can retain up to 3000 volts and the back of an upholstered chair can have 5000 volts accumulated charge.  The combined effect of this high static environment is to increase the level of body charge, which in turn affects skin sensitivity and the immune and hormonal system.  The solution lies in negative ionisers to get rid of static charge and filter out airborne fibres; carpets and chairs can be earthed; carpets can use continuous filament fibres to avoid static.

Workplace Ergonomics

90% of lower back pain comes from poor sitting posture.  Over 80% of office workers report varying combinations of pain in the back, neck, shoulders, arms and hands.  Poor posture at work comes from the tendency when working at a monitor or laptop to sit for long periods in one position.  This places static loads on the body.  These in turn create muscle tension in supporting the load which causes pain from the toxin build up in the muscle fibre and sinews. The solution is a chair that is designed to support the crest of the pelvic bone and allows the seat to tilt forward.  This combined with a sit stand desk means that the working posture can be optimised and altered during the course of the day.


In an open plan office noise is a major source of stress.  The problem is that many a modern office is a large glass and concrete box.  Glass and concrete are excellent sound reflectors.  However the main problem is not simply one of distracting conversations or even the overall noise level. The problem is machine generated noises such as cooling fans which are tuned out by the conscious mind but nevertheless trigger the alarm mechanisms in the sub conscious mind.

The solution is sound absorbent ceiling and flooring with selective sound absorbent vertical surfaces.  This combined with sound masking to raise the ambient level can create a comfortable stress free working environment.


Thermal comfort needs suitable air and mean radiant temperatures in the space. Sitting by a single glazed window will feel cold and draughty due to the low surface temperature for example. Also it is better to have warmer temperatures at lower levels in the space whilst ensuring fresh slightly cooler air circulates at head level.

The air temperature selected depends on the outside temperature as very large differentials can cause thermal shock. So in the Middle East a comfortable temperature may be 27°C but in northern Europe it is closer to 22°C.

Colour & Visual Stimulation

Offices tend to be bland and boring with a considerable use of grey or white.  This is considered better than using stronger colours, which could be perceived as irritating.  The choice of colours is usually subjective on the part of the architect or professional designer and on the part of the management and or staff who make a final choice from alternative schemes that are presented by the designers. The science of colour psychology has existed for many years but has not been widely applied.  Various colour combinations and tones can energise or depress.  Most conventional colour schemes unintentionally have the latter effect.  Working with a colour VDU which has bright colour images when surrounded by surfaces that are virtually colourless increases the levels of visual stress.  Staff can actually suffer from colour deprivation symptoms that are similar to Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD) symptoms.

The solution lies in a colour scheme for a working environment that has the right balance of colour and tone for the activity involved.


These solutions will at last enable employers and work place designers to install a cost effective staff care programme that will deliver measurable benefits in terms of improved productivity, reduced sickness absenteeism and improved staff morale & well-being. 

It is only a matter of time before office environmental planning requires measures such as these as standard in new build offices.  The development of the WELL global standard, Well-Being sections in the RICS SKA Good Practice Measures for Offices are two examples of how serious this issue is being considered as a crucial aspect of workplace design and management.


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