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Air Pollution Might Be Making You Bad at Your Job

Topics: Data & Research
Wildfires in California, British Columbia and Ontario blanketed most of North America in smoke this summer, affecting air quality for the entire continent.
air pollution
Kevin Grieve/Unsplash

That’s especially dangerous for people with asthma and other respiratory problems. But even if you don’t suffer from lung disease, air pollution can have a negative affect on your health — and maybe even your career.

Recent research by Ryan Fehr, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, suggests that the stress of coping with air pollution can make people worse at their jobs.

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Bad Air Quality, Bad Behavior at Work

Fehr collaborated with a team of researchers in China, which has famously high levels of air pollution. Fehr, Kai Chi Yam (National University of Singapore), Wei He (Nanjing University), Jack Ting-Ju Chiang (Peking University) and Wu Wei (Wuhan University) asked 155 employees in a “large industrial city in central China” to record their observations in a daily diary over the course of two weeks.

Subject tracked air pollution levels (according to their perception and validated by objective measurements), their energy levels and how often they helped coworkers. They also recorded “counterproductive behaviors,” such as slacking off, surfing the internet and taking extended breaks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, counterproductive behaviors surged on days with worse air quality. When workers perceived air quality levels as low, they were less likely to help a colleague and more likely to report slacking off at work. They also reported feeling “unusually depleted” on days with poorer air quality.

“The perception of air pollution severity taxes employees’ resources of self-control,” Fehr explains in a research brief. “This depletion results in decreased organizational citizenship behavior and increased counterproductive work behavior. Not only does air pollution make us ill physiologically, but psychologically as well.”

More Evidence of a Link

While Fehr and his team acknowledge that the study is small, their research dovetails with an earlier study showing that air pollution may affect productivity among white-collar workers. Researchers at Germany’s Leibniz University and the Columbia Business School analyzed data on stock trades and found that a modest increase in air pollution correlated with a decreased tendency to trade stocks.

The Washington Post explains:

With those other factors accounted for, Meyer and Pagel focused on the effect of particulate matter in the air, a measure known as PM10 — particles about 1/7th the thickness of a human hair, small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs. These particles come from vehicle exhaust, construction dust, industrial sources, wood burning and other sources, and are linked to everything from asthma to general respiratory distress to heart attacks and even death.

They found that a modest increase in outdoor PM10 — 12 micrograms of the pollutant per cubic meter — reduced investors’ propensity to trade by nearly 10 percent. They characterize that effect as “large and significant,” akin to the decrease in trading observed on a nice sunny day versus a cloudy one.

What Can Your Employer Do?

Fehr offers several recommendations for organizations that want to boost productivity, including:

  • Allowing telecommuting when air quality is particularly bad
  • Installing better air filtration systems at work
  • Providing employees with health resources to manage the physical impact of pollution

But ultimately, he says, “nations will have to deal with the issue of air pollution more broadly.” In the meantime, climate experts says that wildfires are likely to get worse as global temperatures rise.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you find that air pollution affects your performance at work? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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