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Are modern offices making us stupider?

By Kyle Robbins | |5 minute read

According to this breath expert, yes.

Modern offices and buildings designed as easy to heat and cool “bubbles” have a significant impact on cognitive function.

Speaking on a recent episode of The Diary of a CEO podcast, best-selling author and breath expert, James Nestor, detailed how increased time spent in modern offices can result in serious productivity declines.


Step out into the world outside and you’ll be exposed to carbon dioxide levels (CO2) of 400 parts per million. Mr Nestor explained these levels of exposure are healthy, but CO2 levels straying from this healthy outdoor range bring greater cognitive impacts.

“Once you get into 800ppm, some studies have found, when testing students, you see a 20 per cent decline in test results,” he said. “By the time you get to 1,000ppm you start suffering things like eye irritation, sore throats [and] other issues.”

“By the time you get to 2,500ppm, you’re in really bad shape,” he stressed.

According to the Australian Building Code Board’s National Construction Code ‘Indoor Air Quality’ handbook published in 2021, the exposure standard for CO2 in the occupational environment is 5,000ppm, which the body noted “is the eight-hour time weighted average limit for occupational exposures”.

“We’ve been told by authorities we should only worry about levels that are up to 5,000ppm. That is completely false,” Mr Nestor claimed.

“There are over 18 studies that show levels over 800ppm to 1,000ppm can potentially cause problems with bone demineralisation, kidney calcification and chronic inflammation.”

Upon sharing this information, approximately one hour into the podcast recording, Mr Nestor revealed he, his host Steven Bartlett, and the rest of the production crew were exposed to 1,100ppm of CO2 in the room, with that figure likely to rise as high as 1,700ppm were they to continue working in that environment for the next few hours.

Mr Nestor cited several studies involving school students conducting tests in rooms where CO2 levels were between 1,500ppm and 2,000ppm, resulting in a 50 per cent reduction in test scores, while an additional study of 24 employees indicated cognitive scores fell 50 per cent when participants were exposed to 1,400ppm of CO2 compared to their performance exposed to 550ppm of CO2 during a working day.

As much is alluded to in Australia’s National Construction Code, which states: “There is some evidence that CO2 levels above 1,000ppm can result in reduced levels of concentration in humans and reduced productivity levels.”

“The modern world is conspiring to make us unhealthy,” Mr Nestor added.

Part of the danger around increased CO2 build-up within indoor environments is the difficulty in sensing its presence, given it lacks a distinct smell and cannot be seen.

“It’s invisible and yet it’s always there,” he said. “In rooms like this [an enclosed podcast studio], there’s nothing you can do because the HVAC [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system has been designed to recycle air over and over and over again.”

According to Safe Work Australia, there are several potential methods to improve workflow and reduce build-up of CO2 in workplace environments over lengthy periods of time. In buildings, where possible, the organisation recommends increasing the introduction of outdoor air through open doors and windows.

However, as is the case in most Australian central business district office buildings, open windows are not accessible and doors often lead to stairways or elevator shafts rather than the outdoors.

In these instances, Safe Work noted mechanical ventilation can be improved through adjustment to building HVAC systems to ensure they maximise fresh air supply as opposed to recirculating air. Moreover, air purifiers or cleaners have merit in improving air flow.

Moving forward, Mr Nestor believes employees and employers alike are “going to require that there be fresh air because [if not] you’re going to see big problems with performance”.

This article was originally published on HR Leader's sister brand, Real Estate Business (REB).