Definition 

Sick building syndrome (SBS) describes a range of symptoms thought to be linked to spending time in a certain building, most often a workplace, but no specific cause can be found.

SBS symptoms

The symptoms of SBS may include:

  • headaches and dizziness
  • nausea (feeling sick)
  • aches and pains
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • poor concentration
  • shortness of breath or chest tightness
  • eye and throat irritation
  • irritated, blocked or runny nose
  • skin irritation (skin rashes, dry itchy skin)

The symptoms of SBS can occur on their own or in combination with each other, and they may vary from day to day. Different individuals in the same building may experience different symptoms. They usually improve or disappear altogether when you leave the building and often return when you re-enter the building.

Who's affected by SBS?

Anyone can be affected by SBS, but office workers in modern buildings without opening windows and with mechanical ventilation or air conditioning systems are most at risk.

The likelihood of experiencing SBS symptoms can be higher if you're employed in routine work that involves using display screen equipment.

If you or your employees use computer equipment at work, you should ensure that both the equipment and work area are set up correctly and are in line with the Health and Safety Executive’s Display Screen Equipment Regulations (1992) (PDF, 254kb).

Read more tips about how to use a laptop correctly and safely.

Women are more likely to develop the symptoms of SBS than men. This may be because more women work in offices, rather than women being more susceptible to the condition.

SBS environments

SBS seems to be associated with certain types of buildings. Most cases occur in open plan offices, but people sometimes develop the symptoms while in other buildings that are occupied by lots of people such as:

  • schools
  • libraries
  • museums

There have also been anecdotal reports of people experiencing symptoms such as headaches, tiredness and dizziness at home.

Although these symptoms aren't necessarily related to SBS, it's important to ensure your home is a safe environment. Make sure you have working smoke alarms fitted and that gas appliances, such as cookers and boilers, are regularly serviced.

Make sure you can open the windows to allow you to ventilate your home, and keep your home as dust-free as possible. Keeping the rooms free of clutter and in good decorative order will also help make your home a pleasant environment in which to live.

Read more about preventing carbon monoxide poisoning and keeping your home clean.

Risk factors

Since the 1970s, researchers have tried to identify the cause of SBS. As yet, no single cause has been identified. Most experts believe that it may be the result of a combination of things.

Possible risk factors for SBS may include:

  • poor ventilation
  • low humidity
  • high temperature or changes in temperature throughout the day
  • airborne particles, such as dust, carpet fibres or fungal spores
  • airborne chemical pollutants, such as those from cleaning materials or furniture, or ozone produced by photocopiers and printers
  • physical factors, such as electrostatic charges
  • poor standards of cleanliness in the working environment
  • inadequate ventilation when using chemical cleaning products  
  • poor lighting that causes glare or flicker on visual display units
  • improper use of display screen equipment
  • psychological factors, such as stress or low staff morale

Advice for employees

If you think your working environment is making you ill, talk to your colleagues to see whether they have similar symptoms.

If SBS appears to be a workplace issue, you should raise it with your line manager. They'll be able to investigate the matter further with the help of your health and safety representative. Your employer has a duty of care to investigate the problem. For further advice, your employer should have access to an occupational health service.

The environmental health services of your local authority or your local Health and Safety Executive (HSE) office may also be able to provide help and advice about how to deal with SBS.

Visit GOV.UK to find your local authority. To find your local HSE office you can call the HSE's helpline number on 0845 345 0055 (Monday to Friday, 8am-6pm).

Visit your GP if you have symptoms of SBS that you're particularly concerned about.

Employer’s responsibilities

The HSE recommends that employers take the steps outlined below to investigate the possible causes of SBS.

  • Carry out an employee survey to find out whether symptoms are occurring more often than expected. It may also help to identify any obvious causes that can easily be fixed, such as adjusting the office temperature. See below for more information.
  • Check the general cleanliness of the building, including checking that the vacuum cleaners are working properly and are regularly emptied and their filters are clean.
  • Check that cleaning materials are being used properly and stored correctly.
  • Check the operation of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. In particular, the system that supplies fresh air should be checked.
  • Check the condition and cleanliness of air filters, humidifiers, de-humidifiers and cooling towers. The HSE recommends humidity of 40-70% should be maintained in office environments.
  • Check heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system maintenance schedules. Make sure they're being followed properly.

Once the above steps have been completed and any necessary actions have been taken, employers should carry out another employee survey at a later date to find out whether employees are still experiencing the symptoms of SBS.

If the SBS symptoms are still present, a more detailed investigation will be needed. This can be carried out by a building services engineer or another similarly qualified consultant.

Employee surveys

There can be advantages in employers being proactive about SBS and asking individual workers informally whether they have any concerns about their working environment.

If there are credible reports of symptoms, a survey should be arranged in a way that tries to avoid employee discussion, which can distort the findings.

A simple survey should cover the frequency of symptoms and whether they improve outside of the building.

Conducting this type of survey can help identify any issues which can then be dealt with before they become more serious problems.

Workplace health

There are a number of measures you can take at work to help prevent the symptoms of sick building syndrome. For example, you can:

  • open windows to avoid getting too hot
  • organise and prioritise your workload to help prevent stress
  • take regular screen breaks of five to 10 minutes (if you use a computer) for every hour that you're sitting at your desk
  • go outside for some fresh air and a walk during lunchtime and break time 
  • eat healthily and exercise regularly to help maintain high energy levels and good posture while at work

Read more about workplace health.




Page last reviewed: 18/09/2014

Next review due: 18/09/2016