Ever heard of the "sick building syndrome"? Yes, you heard it right! What happens in this syndrome is that the building occupants experience increasing discomfort depending on how long they spend inside the building. Sick building syndrome (SHO), a term coined by the World Health Organization, was on the rise in 1970s. This led to not only growing media attention but it also captured the fancy of scientists. The current paper led by Dr. Boubekri from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the first studies, to examine a relationship between impact of daylight at the workplace (or the lack thereof) on an office worker's sleep and overall quality of life.
Now, how do the researchers go about measuring such an abstract term as "quality of life"? After all, it is not something that is easily quantified nor can it be generalized since we all lead our lives in a myriad different ways!
Therefore, to conduct the study, researchers recruited 49 volunteers: office workers, half of whom had windows in their workplaces, and the other half without! Now each participant had to fill a questionnaire with queries pertaining to their physical health that was influenced by an individual's experiences, beliefs and health perceptions. In another experiment, the researchers provided the workers with a battery-operated watch-like device known as the "Actiwatch" to be worn on their non-dominant wrist. The watch acted as a data logger to detect and record motions when the workers were awake and asleep. This special watch was also fitted with a tiny instrument called a photodiode to measure the amount and duration of light. As a result, the participants were required to wear the watch at all times for weeks (except when taking a shower).
Now comes the part where the scientists analyzed all this data. Results from both these experiments revealed that, increased sunlight exposure in the offices with windows helped the participants in gaining at least 46 minutes more sleep time at nights, compared to workers with windowless workplaces. Not only that, workers with windows in their offices were physically more active than their windowless counterparts. In addition, workers without windows at their workplaces reported role limitations due to physical problems and loss of general vitality.
Using these experiments, the researchers demonstrated a clear beneficial relationship between workplace light exposure and an office worker's overall quality of life. The results also indicated that the problem with limited or no-light exposure in an office environment went beyond its effects on the number of sleep hours of an office worker. As the authors point out, several studies have proved that insufficient or disturbed sleep could lead to a multitude of health problems such as elevated cortisol levels that is bad for your muscle health, impaired glucose metabolism leading to weight gain and deterioration of performance and alertness that could lead to increased error rates and injuries.
So can we generalize the observations from this novel study, given that there are no precursors to it? Not quite so fast! As pointed out by the authors themselves, this study has some limitations owing to the small sample size of participants. Expanding the sample size and collecting other pertinent information from participants about their personal habits like caffeine use to stress levels in their lives is where the field is headed in the future. Collecting this additional data would be critical input, using which research such as the current one could be made more accurate and tailored.
Nevertheless for now, is there solution for some of us who currently work in windowless offices? Turns out, simple steps such as getting up from the seat and taking a walk during breaks or enjoying lunch outdoors could boost our Vitamin D absorption. So, as we approach these last few weeks of summer, enjoy and soak up the sun as much as you can!