When it comes to furnishings and fittings, purchasing decisions can have a direct impact on the health, well-being and productivity of employees.

 The choice of paint on the walls, the flooring materials used and even cleaning products can all affect the indoor air quality, and as you may expect, healthier employees are more productive and cost-effective than a constantly sneezing, wheezing workforce.

Poor indoor air quality can be caused by several different contributing factors. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has identified four key factors as being responsible for “sick building syndrome”, where occupants experience “acute health and comfort effects” that can be linked to time spent in a particular building, but with no immediately obvious cause.

Inadequate ventilation, chemical contaminants from both indoor and outdoor sources, and biological contaminants can all trigger a collection of symptoms including headaches; irritation to eyes, nose, throat or skin; fatigue and difficulty concentrating; a cough; or dizziness and nausea.

Most indoor air pollution comes from interior sources, including potential pollutants from adhesives, upholstery, flooring, paints and cleaning products.

Depending on what’s in these products or used in their manufacture, they may emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde or possible carcinogenic substances. These in turn can cause allergic reactions, asthma, and other symptoms of “sick building syndrome” as they readily vaporise into the surrounding air. Despite that wonderful clean smell of a fresh coat of paint on the walls and new carpeting on the floor, brand new building spaces are often the culprit when it comes to sick building syndrome.

Having poor indoor air quality also affects the productivity of employees, not just their health. A 2009 study by the Kador Group into the tenants of Green Star-rated 500 Collins Street in Melbourne investigated the effects of indoor air quality on workplace productivity. Their participants were a small law firm who were in the process of moving to newly refurbished space in the same building. These refurbishments met the criteria for a 5 Green Star rating for Office Design, demonstrating that they were better for the environment and for human health.

The results were remarkable. Cases of sick leave decreased by 39 per cent and typing speed increased by nine per cent, with additional improvements in accuracy. Despite a 12 per cent reduction in average hours worked each month, there was a seven per cent increase in the billings ratio for the lawyers, suggesting that they were being more productive with their time on the job. They also found improvements to overall health, reporting significant reductions in the frequency of headaches, colds, sore eyes, fatigue and flagging concentration levels.

Improving indoor air quality doesn’t necessarily mean moving to an entirely new building or completely gutting the interiors to remodel from scratch. Simple changes to the products used by cleaning staff or updating the flooring can be enough. For example, if you’re thinking of giving the office a fresh new coat of colour, choose a no-VOC or low-VOC paint. Paint is one of the worst offenders for VOC emissions, with standard formulations causing a sharp rise in indoor VOC levels immediately after painting as the coat dries. VOCs can continue seeping out for several years following application.

Considering their effect on human health, it’s surprising that so many VOC-emitting products still exist.

“While it is still legal to use products that emit nasties like VOCs, I am sure many employers would seek to eliminate them if they were aware of the problem and the fact that it is so easy to address,” says Rupert Posner, CEO of Good Environmental Choice Australia (GECA). “Providing a safe and productive working environment is important and procuring the right products is a key part of that.”

Cleaning products also contain an array of chemicals that may contribute to indoor air pollution and are one of the easiest things to change to boost the air quality in your offices. Other simple solutions include placing some indoor plants in a workspace to help filter the air, or choosing environmentally-preferable furniture and fittings. The easiest way to find out if manufacturers are making accurate claims about whether their products are better for the environment and safer for human health is to look for evidence of independent third-party certification, such as the ecolabel.

With a renewed focus on productivity, it might be surprising that simple procurement decisions can have a real and measureable impact on an organisation. While measuring productivity may be a complex science, it’s clear that more employers and building owners are beginning to see how sustainable design leads to better results in the workplace.