So-called sick building syndrome may have been misnamed as its symptoms are linked more closely to job stress than unhealthy environments, a study says.
Sick building syndrome is associated with a set of conditions
Researchers asked 4,000 civil servants from 44 buildings in London about their environment and job pressures and about symptoms such as coughs and tiredness.
They found dry air and hot offices increased symptoms slightly but the most important factor was stress.
The research is printed in Occupational and Environmental Medicine journal.
The term "sick building syndrome" is used to describe a cluster of symptoms affecting the eyes, head, upper respiratory tract and skin, which some believe are linked to poor building design.
Some experts say the syndrome is responsible for businesses losing many millions of pounds through low productivity and sickness absence.
However, the London researchers argue that many of these symptoms could be linked to work-related stress, rather than something wrong with buildings.
The study found high job demands and low levels of support were linked with high symptom rates, especially for those with little decision-making power.
They used outside observers to assess civil servants' physical work environment by measuring factors such as temperature and light.
The volunteers were also asked if they had any physical symptoms and about the demands of their job, including levels of support at work.
Some 14% of men and 19% of women reported five or more symptoms associated with the syndrome.
The team found higher levels of symptoms in buildings with temperatures outside the recommended range, poor humidity, airborne bacteria and dust.
But lower levels of symptoms were reported in buildings with poor air circulation, or unacceptable levels of carbon dioxide, noise or volatile organic compounds.
Workers who could control their immediate environment by turning down heating or opening windows also reported fewer symptoms.
The study authors said: "Sick building syndrome may be wrongly named - raised symptoms reporting appears to be due less to poor physical conditions than to a working environment characterised by poor psychosocial conditions.
"Our findings suggest that, in this sample of office based workers, physical attributes of buildings have a small influence on symptoms."
Co-author Dr Mai Stafford of the Epidemiology and Public Health department of University College London, said: "We are not making claims that buildings don't matter for anybody.
"But for the general workforce job stress and job demands seem to have a bigger impact.
"There certainly could be buildings which do have physical properties that are very bad," she added.
The researchers acknowledged that the quality of the Whitehall buildings they looked into could have been too good to have an adverse effect on health.
But they concluded: "When sick building syndrome symptoms come to light, managers should consider causes beyond the physical design and operation of the workplace."
Andrew Griffiths, principal policy officer for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said the study's findings seemed practical and sensible.
He said: "Stress is a key health and safety issue which managers must address."
He added: "The concept of sick building syndrome can act as a distraction; employers must address all factors which influence health and safety as part of their legal responsibilities under the Health and Safety Act."