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Green Offices Can Impact Brain Function

green offices can impact brain function

Many people spend 40 or more hours per week working in buildings, and the air quality of those work spaces—whether they are green offices or non-green offices—can have a significant impact on brain function. In fact, if you are having productivity problems at work, air quality may be a culprit.


A new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, SUNY Upstate Medical University, and Syracuse University conducted a double-blind study that explored people’s experiences working in both green and non-green buildings. The investigators looked at levels of indoor pollutants and carbon dioxide and the impact of ventilation on workers’ cognitive function.

Most office workers are encased in buildings in which they are unable to open the windows. Airtight building designs do make structures more energy efficient, but at the same time they increase the risk of sick building syndrome.

The desire to improve indoor air quality in office buildings while also being green and energy efficient has resulted in a focus on sustainable green buildings that encompass both goals. However, it’s not entirely clear what impact non-green factors have on cognitive functioning.

So researchers enlisted 24 professionals (including architects, engineers, managers, and designers, among others) and placed them in a controlled office environment, where they studied their decision-making performance for six days. During that time, the individuals carried on their usual work while they were exposed to various conditions common in office buildings; that is:

  • Conventional: high volatile organic compound (VOC) concentration
  • Green: low VOC concentration
  • Green+: high indoor air ventilation rate
  • Artificially elevated levels of carbon dioxide independent of ventilation

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Here’s what they found:

  • Scores on cognitive performance for those who worked in green conditions were twice (on average) those of participants who worked in conventional work environments
  • Scores for individuals who worked in green office environments were 61 percent higher than those in non-green environments
  • Of the nine cognitive function factors the investigators looked at, the three that showed the greatest improvements in green environments were response to crisis, strategy, and information usage.
  • Average scores declined on seven of the nine cognitive functions tested as carbon dioxide level rose to amounts typically found in many indoor environments

The findings of this study indicate that indoor air quality has a significant impact on “critical decision making parameters that are linked to optimal and productive functioning,” according to one of the study’s authors, Usha Satish, professor, Department of Psychiatry, SUNY Upstate Medical University. Compromise or loss of these important brain functions has an impact on how individuals manage their daily live.

What can be done to change this indoor pollution challenge? The authors noted that “Increasing the supply of outdoor air not only lowers exposures to CO2 and VOCs, but also exposure to other indoor contaminants.” They also pointed out that “Green building design that optimized employee productivity and energy usage will require adopting energy efficient systems and informed operating practices to maximize the benefit to human health while minimizing energy consumption.”

Workers can act individually to help "green up" their work space by populating their work space with indoor plants known to help reduce air pollutants, using an air purifier with a HEPA filter, and spending breaks and lunch times outdoors.

Also read about How Indoor Plants Improve Health

Spengler JD et al. Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers: a controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments. Environmental Health Perspectives 2015; DOI:10.1289/ehp.1510037