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February 2019

Can bad smells affect your performance or mood at work?

Written by Bakang Kganyago
Workplace Hygiene

Simply put, yes... Yes, they can. If not dealt with properly, odour issues could be affecting employee morale in your office. Can you guess why or how that actually happens?

1. Memories associated with smell

Did you know that humans can recognise and remember about 10,000 scents? We commonly remember smells better than we do sounds, sights and things we touch. This is due to the fact that smells get routed through our olfactory bulb, which is the smell analyzing region in our brain. The olfactory bulb is closely connected to the parts of the brain that handle memory (the hippocampus) and our emotions (the amygdala).

Can bad smells affect your performance or mood at work?

2. Smells can trigger intense emotions associated with past memories

How we react to certain smells is closely associated with past experiences of those smells. This is known as associative learning, e.g the smell of blood eliciting fear or anxiety due to past traumatic experiences. Any future encounters with that particular smell will produce that same negative emotion. This intense association between smell and emotions can be attributed once again to the olfactory bulbs that are connected to the hippocampus and amygdala, processing both memory and emotion.  

The two reasons mentioned above account for why your mother’s perfume may make you feel happy and content,  or why you might dread going back into a bathroom that you remember as smelling awful.

Because of the close connection between smells, memory and emotion, odour can affect our performance, morale, mood, how we regard our environment and our reaction to the other coworkers with whom we share our workplace.

Below is a look into what makes a bathroom smell foul, the impact it has on employee morale and what you can do about it.

What causes bad bathroom odour?

Bacteria thrive in bathrooms due to the high humidity and moisture levels; add to that a higher temperature and you have a recipe for foul odours.

Of all the causes of bad odour in the bathroom, urine and improper cleaning are the most common culprits. Bacteria utilises urine as a food source, and as urine changes from acid to alkaline, it attracts moisture. This forms an ongoing cycle which will continue until the bacteria is destroyed, making the smell even worse (Weise, 2002). Furthermore, bad odours are also caused by the build-up of crystallised uric acid, salts and scale which can cause pipes to become blocked.

Improper cleaning is another one of the culprits; cleaning supplies such as mops and cloths are usually damp, which means that they offer the perfect spot to harbour germs and then spread them around.

Leaking pipes and cracks can also attract viruses, bacteria, fungi and mould (Texas Child Care Quarterly, 2012) and lead to bathroom odours.

But what impact does smell have on employee well-being?

I really want to leave

According to Rachel S. Herz, an assistant professor of psychology at Brown University, we associate odours with specific experiences, where one event becomes linked with another. The linked event then prompts a conditioned reaction for the original situation and determines the individual’s perception (memory, emotions and behaviour) of a specific situation.

There is a strong neurological basis for why smells trigger emotional connections. The olfactory bulb in the brain which sorts sensation into perception is part of the limbic system that is equipped for associative learning and emotional processing. For instance, an employee visits the second floor of the office building and experiences a foul bathroom smell. This elicits an unconditioned emotional response, such as feeling stressed and unwelcome. The odour becomes a conditioned stimulus for that second-floor experience and attains the ability to trigger the conditioned response of stress and feelings of being unwelcome which is encountered on subsequent visits.

There is a growing body of research that suggests that workplace scent should be managed just like other factors that impact our lives at the office - such as temperature, lighting and personal space - are managed. Many studies have shown that pleasant scents improve employee productivity, performance, confidence levels and social behaviours. Read more about this in our blog about smell and workplace productivity.

On the other hand, unpleasant smells arising from the bathroom can have the opposite effect on employee productivity and mood. Since smell affects our emotions, spending time in an office space that reeks of bad bathroom odours can make employees feel stressed, unappreciated, and that their basic needs are not taken care of. Since we spend most of our day at the office, employers need to be made aware of the important role scent plays in the workplace, and the impact it can have on employee morale.

What can your daily cleaners do about malodour in the bathroom?

As mentioned earlier, improper cleaning is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to foul smells emanating from the bathroom. The best action to take in this regard is to brief bathroom cleaners to do the following on a daily basis:

  • Use proper cleaning supplies: mops, brooms, cloths, gloves and buckets, and ensure that they are disinfected after each use.

  • Ensure that cleaning supplies for the bathroom are used in the bathroom only and are not used to clean other areas such as kitchens, as this will lead to the spread of bacteria.

  • Wash floors with a disinfectant solution: ensure that spaces behind toilets and bins are also attended to.

  • Toilet bowls must be cleaned with a detergent, and attention must also be paid to other areas of the toilet: the toilet lid, seat, rim, handle and areas between the seat and cistern. The same with urinals; ensure that these are properly disinfected.

  • Feminine hygiene units: employ a reputable hygiene service provider to empty sanitary bins regularly and wipe the surface down with a sanitising solution.

  • Don’t forget the basins, taps and counters: basins need to be sterilised, and counter surfaces and taps need to be wiped with a sanitiser solution. Be cautious not to empty dirty water (that was used to clean floors and toilets) into basins as this will cause bacteria to settle and contaminate other areas.

  • Air fresheners and deodorisers: air fresheners can be used to promote a fresh smelling bathroom. However, please note that this will not solve the malodour problem in the long run, but just act to mask the smell.

  • Any leakages or blockages should be reported as soon as possible to prevent water from accumulating or overflowing which in turn, will provide an attractive environment in which germs will thrive.

What can you do to ensure a pleasant smelling bathroom in the long run?

Daily bathroom cleaning will ensure a clean environment, but not guarantee a hygienic bathroom in the long term. A regular deep cleaning bathroom hygiene treatment for those hard-to-reach areas should form part of the cleaning regime. This includes sanitising toilets, bathroom fixtures and surfaces with the use of bio-enzyme preparations that eliminate the buildup of scale, dirt and faecal deposits.

Along with this, Initial offers an antibacterial fogging service which uses a high-level aerosol disinfectant to reach every crack and crevice, and covers every exposed surface of the bathroom, penetrating those places that daily cleaning just can’t reach.

By ensuring a hygienic, germ-free bathroom environment, you’ll provide a healthier, pleasant-smelling bathroom experience that doesn't give rise to any negative emotional reactions.

Got a problem with foul-smelling facilities? Contact Initial for expert solutions.

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Bakang Kganyago

Bakang Kganyago

Bakang is a Digital Marketing Executive for Rentokil Initial. A germaphobe at heart, he's passionate about learning and sharing insights on how to defeat the enemy we cannot see. Join his journey as he writes about the impact of germs in our daily lives.

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