Sick of Work vs. Sick from Work
In one of my previous positions, I worked in a really dry office. Like, need a humidifier to get through winter without a nosebleed, kind of dry. Some of my coworkers had similar issues and cobbled together solutions. In one case, there were several plants on the desk, a humidifier, an air purifier, a sun lamp, and regular desk cleaning. Okay, almost hourly desk cleaning.
New employees were given the rundown about which desks were the driest, which ones were too hot, which ones were too cold, etc. HR said they didn’t have any control over the environment and that we should bring it up to the custodial staff. The custodial staff said they had no control over it but offered to water our plants. Managers didn’t have much response, except for sympathy. Like a lot of people in offices, everyone just kinda got used to it being that way.
Years later, while in another job, I overheard someone talk about Sick Building Syndrome. So my first stop was Google, then Wikipedia, then the NIH, then a rabbit hole of papers and studies and anecdotal stories. By the end of my “what the heck is it?” journey, I found my favorite definition:
“Headache, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itching skin, difficulty in concentration, fatigue, sensitivity to odours, hoarseness of voice, allergies, cold, flu-like symptoms, increased incidence of asthma attacks and personality changes.”
Until that point, I had never considered that the office itself could be the problem. I mean, I assumed hours of slideshows were the reason for finding it hard to focus. Or that the reason for my headache was from meetings about meetings about whether we should meet. It never occurred to be that the actual building itself was the cause. For some people, an office can be so inhospitable, it can be downright aggressive. I have the benefit of a relatively good immune system, so I can shrug off the most common problems, but not everyone is so lucky.
So how do we address this Sick Building problem? Managers may be sympathetic, HR might provide some direction, but the problem isn’t really in their hands. It’s in the hands of the people who built the building and the people who leased it. And the vast majority of them, just don’t care that much.
Think about it. Creating a building from a hole in the ground is one of the most complicated projects you can imagine. Architect’s dreams turn into engineer’s nightmares, general contractors have to wrangle so many sub-contractors that they hire multiple project managers, and if one piece is delayed (the bathroom faucets are on backorder) the whole thing goes wonky (so the bathrooms can’t be finished so the water seals can’t be tested so the airflush can’t be done and so on and so on)
On top of that, every building that goes up needs federal, state, local, and even neighborhood regulations and approvals. There are meetings upon meetings, a bureaucratic nightmare that would make Kafka gasp, and still buildings get built. So, it’s no surprise that, as long as they meet the standards they have to, the builders are happy to just start making back their investment with leases.
But, what if there was an additional standard for how an office should be? Specifically, from the perspective of the worker’s health? What if there were rules about how hot or cold, how dry or moist, how loud or quiet, how bright or dim, your office could be?
Those rules are in the WELL certification developed by the IWBI.
The WELL standard has those kinds of rules so that whether it’s a building, or just a floor in the building, you can be sure that a virus made you sick, not your place of work. A healthier workplace shouldn’t be your responsibility. Heck, it shouldn’t even be your boss’s responsibility.
It should be the responsibility of your company to choose a WELL certified building. Or the building’s owners to renovate your office so it meets those standards. Or to consider the standards as a guide to making your office a healthier place, even without going through the hassle of a full certification.
In the throes of the coronavirus induced shutdown, many companies are thinking about how they can get people back in the office. What sort of precautions they can put in place? What about plastic barriers or shutting down conference rooms or temperature checks when you enter the building? But very few are asking the bigger question.
What if the reason so many people don’t want to come back to the office…is because the office makes them feel sick? And what if we make the office a place where they feel better, healthier, happier?
What if we all got used to it being that way?