New research connects air pollution with productivity

Researchers are discovering that breathing polluted air exacts a huge toll on productivity in the workplace – specifically, white-collar workers. If you work in an office – or cubicle – in a polluted city, your productivity might be lagging as a result of the air you breathe.

Research on the link between air quality and worker productivity isn’t entirely new. Previous studies have documented the effect of air pollution on the productivity of farm workers and laborers. But new research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research focused on the link between air pollution levels and the productivity of white-collar workers.

Focusing on white-collar productivity

The team of researchers, including experts in business, economics and health policy, examined the productivity levels of 5,000 call-center workers at China’s largest travel agency, Ctrip. They looked at completed calls each day, length of breaks and time logged in. This data was then correlated with the local Air Pollution Index (API), a standard measurement of particulate pollution developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and used by authorities in China as well.

The study found that for each 10-unit increase in the pollution index, call-center worker productivity declined by 0.35 percent, measured by number of calls handled. The average duration of individual calls was not affected by pollution levels, but the time workers spent on break increased. Poor air quality impeded the performance of otherwise highly productive employees as much as it did that of less productive workers. The same results were seen among a group of workers who worked at home.

Findings are relevant globally

The Ctrip study was conducted in China, but the researchers noted that their findings are relevant in any urban center in which pollution levels are elevated.

For example, the API in Los Angeles typically peaks below 60, which is considered moderate by the EPA. But on some days the API in Los Angeles can rise above 150, which is considered unhealthy. The potential economic impact of these days on the local Los Angeles economy is staggering. The researchers estimated that on 90 days in 2014 when particulate pollution levels were the highest, productivity in the service sector in Los Angeles was reduced by $374 million.

Potential benefits of air filtration

One implication of this research is the potential benefit to businesses from installing high-performance air filtration. But even when businesses invest in high-quality air filtration, their workers are still exposed to elevated pollution levels at home and in transit. As a result, the importance of public policies that reduce overall pollution levels must remain a priority, the study concluded.

For more information on the results of the Ctrip study, see “The Effect of Pollution on Worker Productivity” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

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