What is sick office syndrome

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Is your office making you ill?
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If you feel sick at work, it may be the building, not your boss

Have you ever come home from work with a headache, nausea, fatigue, red eyes, chest tightness or various aches and pains? Who hasn't?

But if it's been happening more frequently and the feelings are becoming more severe, the cause may be more than just a bad boss or the bug that's going around. You may be suffering from what health exerts are calling "sick office syndrome."

So what is sick office syndrome, how can you be sure you have it and what can you do to prevent or get rid of it?

Sick office or sick building syndrome is the term used to describe a phenomenon most often reported by office workers in buildings without windows that can be opened. With the advent of air conditioning and high heating and cooling costs, modern buildings were no longer constructed with windows that offered fresh air in but increased energy usage. The air circulation in these air-tight buildings was reduced, so odors, germs and other air contaminants stayed in place and affected many more people.

The office cubicle maze also contributes to sick building syndrome by exposing many more workers to the poor quality air and ventilation while not giving any a door to close to keep some of it out. The symptoms were not just confined to office workers - people in libraries, schools, hotels, apartments and other large buildings with no open windows had similar complaints.

Once corporations and health officials realized that offices were making workers sick, they looked for underlying reasons. Because structures are built differently and the outside environment varies across the country, pinpointing the causes was not easy.

Besides poor ventilation, the headaches, irritations, pains and breathing difficulties associated with sick office syndrome can be attributed to low humidity, high temperature, frequent temperature changes throughout the day, dust and fibers from carpeting, indoor pollutants, chemicals used in cleaning and construction and overall poor cleaning and maintenance practices. These are just the most common possible causes - there are many more that are less obvious and more difficult to identify and fix.

If you believe that you're suffering from sick office syndrome, what should you do?

The first step is to check with your co-workers or fellow building residents to see if they have similar symptoms and concerns. If they feel the same way you do at work and feel better when they go home, the building is probably the culprit.

Document the symptoms and frequency of occurrence and present them to your company's human resources department. They can help gather additional data to present to the building's management, especially if it is not owned by your company. Many companies are concerned about employee or tenant welfare and will address the causes, doing things like upgrading ventilation, improving temperature control and revising cleaning practices.

If the problems still persist or if workers are dissatisfied with the response, it may be necessary to report the problems to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal agency responsible for the prevention of work-related diseases and injury.

Sick office syndrome is a real problem that causes real physical illnesses. If you believe you're suffering from it, take action quickly to protect your physical and mental health.

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