Sick Building Syndrome and Remote Work: Is Your Home Negatively Affecting Your Health?

Remote working arrangements have gained widespread acceptance after workers proved they could get the job done amid lockdown restrictions. Moving forward, you might be able to benefit from the long-term flexibility and cost savings of working from home.

But when you spend so much time at home, your indoor environment exerts a stronger influence on your quality of living. For decades, office workers have complained about numerous building-related health complaints, eventually giving rise to the term “sick building syndrome” (SBS). When your home and office are the same place, could you risk suffering the same condition?

A non-specific illness

SBS was first reported in the 1970s. During this time, it was linked to the lower standards of indoor ventilation resulting from the oil embargo, as building designers sought to lower energy consumption.

The common complaints associated with SBS include having difficulty breathing or concentrating, headaches, coughing, fatigue, fever, nausea, and dizziness. Symptoms typical of an allergic reaction, such as irritation of the skin, eyes, nose, or throat, might also be experienced.

These symptoms are non-specific. They can easily be mistaken for the common cold, allergies, flu, or stress-related conditions. Making matters even more troublesome, SBS has never been conclusively narrowed down to a single cause.

So if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms while you work from home, how can you determine if it’s SBS and not just a cold, for instance? You’ll have to play scientist and do a little experiment.

Try to shift your working arrangements elsewhere for some time. You could go to a co-working space, or relocate to the patio, for example. If this improves your condition, and the symptoms reappear when you go inside, you have evidence that the issue is connected to your indoor environment.

Steps to improve your home

Once you’ve demonstrated a link between those symptoms and your living space, you can begin to work on some solutions. But the exact cause of SBS is unspecified, so you’ll have to do a thorough home inspection to see if any of the possible factors are at work.

Ventilation is the most common culprit, so routine AC repair and maintenance ought to be first on the checklist. You might also want to measure the humidity with a hygrometer; anything between 30-50% is considered acceptable. Adjust accordingly with a humidifier (or dehumidifier) if necessary.

Other irritants within the home can trigger SBS. These include biological contaminants such as insect or animal droppings, pollen, mold, or fungi. They can accumulate in carpets or other large fabric surfaces. Mold and fungi are also typically present in dark, damp areas; make sure to check even parts of the home that are rarely used. Immediately disinfect these areas and objects to get rid of potential contaminants.

Human activity can also generate many possible causes of SBS. Anyone who smokes in the vicinity can trigger or worsen your symptoms. Motor vehicle exhaust from idling cars can also enter the home through poorly situated intake vents. And any recent construction work could contaminate your indoor air with volatile organic compounds.

Finally, SBS can be alleviated by spending more time outdoors. Poor ergonomics and a lack of natural light have also been cited as potential causes. Remember to take regular breaks and stroll around the block or in your yard, to get some sunshine and physical activity each day.

Working on the psychological factor

Improving your physical environment can go a long way towards providing relief from SBS. But the symptoms you’re experiencing can also be linked to psychological factors. Studies have suggested that people might report suffering from SBS at higher rates when they are under the strain of heavy job demands and low support at work.

Consider discussing the matter openly with your employer. Even though you’re no longer reporting to the office, they are still responsible to an extent for your health and safety. And they lose the benefits of a remote working arrangement (cost savings and higher productivity) if you’re experiencing adverse health effects.

Together, you and your employer might be able to come up with solutions to improve team morale and boost support. The workload could be adjusted; colleagues with higher available bandwidth might be able to help out.

Online channels offer the potential for better collaboration. In many cases, teams could use further improvements in the way they utilize their communication platforms to foster positive and enjoyable virtual interactions.

Homesick workers have been clamoring for remote work for many years. Make these adjustments, and you can enjoy these new arrangements while avoiding getting sick of your home.