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Bad air makes you bad at your job

We know filthy air wreaks havoc on personal health, but it also slows down the amount of work people can produce in a day.

Bad air makes you bad at your job
[Photo: Westend61/Getty Images]

On days when the air quality is particularly bad–like following the devastating fires in California this past fall–you feel it. You might get a headache, or feel sluggish and short of breath. Exposure to this type of pollution for long periods of time can cause lasting harm to one’s health in the form of asthma, heart disease, or lung cancer.

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The physical effects of poor air quality are hard to ignore, but a group of researchers at the University of Singapore wondered if pollution had implications in areas beyond health–specifically, the economy. What type of effect does exposure to polluted air have on labor productivity?

Not surprisingly, working in polluted conditions is not great for productivity. But compared to physical effects, where a particularly smoggy day may make someone’s headache proportionately worse, the impact on productivity is more subtle. Daily fluctuations in pollution levels, the researchers found, don’t exactly impact daily productivity levels. But if someone has to work for a long time in polluted conditions, their productivity slowly declines over time.

[Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images]

To arrive at this conclusion, the research team–led by associate professor Liu Haoming–spent a year studying two textile factories in China and assessing both pollution levels and worker output. Textile mills pay workers for each piece of fabric they make, so it was relatively easy for Liu and his team to build out a database of each workers’ output during their shifts over time. They also tracked levels of fine particulate matter (called PM2.5 to signify particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) in the factories.

In both factories–one in Henan, and one in Jiangsu–levels of PM2.5 varied radically each day, but were generally high. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sets the “safe” level of PM2.5 at 12 micrograms per cubic meter, and in one factory, pollution levels were an average of seven times that, at 85 micrograms per cubic meter.

While one day alone of higher-than-average PM2.5 levels may not lead to a noticeable drop in productivity, Liu says that consistent exposure over time will. His team found that sustained exposure to high pollution levels (at least 10 micrograms per cubic meter over the “safe” limit) for 25 days decreases worker productivity by 1%. “Unlike the impact on health, the impact on labor productivity is very subtle,” Liu says. “Most managers who we have interviewed did not realize that air pollution can have a negative impact on their workers’ productivity.”

The findings from the University of Singapore team are especially relevant now, as some corporations object to restrictions on pollution levels, often saying that the regulations are bad for business. This is certainly playing out in the United States, as the auto and fossil fuel industries effectively lobbied the EPA to roll back clean air policies. But what Liu’s team’s research shows is that pollution might negatively affect a company’s bottom line anyway by limiting the productivity of their workers–and jeopardizing their health.

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Liu says it’s vital that the effect of pollution on the economy be given more attention. Even though their study focused specifically on textile mill workers, he says that the findings could be more broadly applied to any work that requires coordination, speed, and consistency. “The negative impact on labor productivity should be considered as an important part of the cost of air pollution,” he says. While overarching pollution regulation is needed to keep particulate matter levels at the safe threshold, for now, he says, it’s important that managers in potentially polluted settings give their employees frequent breaks in clean-air rooms.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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