Sick Workers Shouldn't Blame Workplace

Study: Job Stress More Likely Cause of 'Sick Building Syndrome'

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 22, 2006

March 22, 2006 -- Is the building you work in making you sick? Probably not, new research suggests, but your job might be.

Job stress is a more likely cause of the cluster of symptoms known as "sick building syndrome" than physical environment, according to one of the largest studies ever to examine the issue.

These symptoms can include headaches, itchy eyes, dry throat, dry and itchy skin, fatigue, and even dizziness and nausea.

Inadequate ventilation within office buildings is often blamed for the symptoms, but studies examining sick building syndrome have failed to identify consistent associations with air quality and other physical properties of most work environments.

"There was a lot of talk when we started this study about buildings making people ill," researcher and architect Alexi Marmot, PhD, tells WebMD, adding that the previous studies tended to include people who already suspected that their physical work environment was making them ill.

'Sick Job Syndrome' Findings

The latest research included 4,052 civil service workers between the ages of 42 and 62 enrolled in a larger general health study. The men and women in the study worked at 44 different office buildings around London.

The workers completed surveys designed to assess their general health and whether they had symptoms linked to sick building syndrome. They were also asked questions about the physical properties of the offices that they worked in and the stresses associated with their jobs.

As has been found in earlier studies, women tended to have more symptoms associated with sick building syndrome than men. Younger workers also had more of the symptoms than older workers.

Approximately one in five women and one in seven men reported five or more symptoms associated with sick building syndrome.

The authors found little association between physical work environment and the symptoms. But there was a strong association between the symptoms and feelings of having high job demands and little support in the workplace.

They also write that the more control people have over their workstation, the fewer symptoms were reported.

The study is published in the latest issue of the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

"It may be that 'sick building syndrome' should really be termed 'sick job syndrome,'" study co-author Mai Stafford, PhD, tells WebMD. "By focusing on physical environment we have been missing an important part of the picture."

Chemicals, Mold Still a Concern

Though the findings fail to support "sick buildings" as a common cause of worker illness, the study should not be interpreted as meaning that the physical quality of the workplace is unimportant, the researchers say.

Kristy Miller of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells WebMD that poor ventilation can certainly make employees sick if their work involves exposure to chemical fumes.

And while the extent of illness due to indoor exposure to mold is not yet well understood, Miller says mold does appear to cause health problems for some workers.

"Every building is different and every situation is different, but there are a few basic tips," she says. "Good ventilation is very important, and so is checking humidity levels in buildings. High moisture leads to mold, so if you have a leak in the roof or a plumbing leak, fix it immediately."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Marmot, A.F. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, March 2006; vol 63: pp 283-289. Alexi Marmot, PhD, architect. Mai Stafford, PhD, senior research fellow, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London Medical School. Kristy Miller, spokeswoman, Environmental Protection Agency.
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