Air pollution hurts office workers' productivity, study finds


We've known air pollution is dangerous for decades. But, sadly, it can sometimes take a profit-driven argument to make companies pay attention.

Now we've got one. 

Researchers tracked the productivity levels of phone bank workers at two travel service call centers, per a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They found workers were 5% to 6% more productive when outdoor air pollution levels were at "good" levels than when they were rated as "unhealthy."

The study, led by researchers at Columbia University, University of Southern California and University of California, San Diego, is among the first to document the detrimental impact of air pollution on knowledge-workers in white-collar industries.

Previous research has focused on farm and factory workers, the study authors wrote in the Harvard Business Review.

The setup for this study was key: The researchers looked at call centers in China, a country with high levels of air pollution. The authors were able to evaluate productivity because the firm meticulously monitored and logged worker activity, including number of calls completed and duration of breaks.

The researchers found significant knocks on productivity even at relatively low pollution levels, including the "code orange" level, which the Environmental Protection Agency calls "unhealthy for sensitive groups."

Previous studies have shown that more exposure to fine particles in the air is connected to cognitive impairment and decline.


Pollution harms you because particulate matter in the air is tiny enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream, the researchers wrote. As they travel into your central nervous system, particles can get stuck in the brain stem, causing inflammation and damage.

Assuming it's "the result of diminished cognitive function," the researchers wrote, "the negative impact of pollution on productivity may be greatest in higher-skilled jobs."

Alas, without city-level reform, they pointed out, there's little employers or workers can do to combat air pollution.

"The air we breathe is the epitome of a shared resource, and air pollution recognizes no corporate or political boundaries," the researchers wrote. "Therefore, air pollution can only be efficiently controlled by policy that extends beyond the borders of a single firm."

But, at least on an individual basis, the researchers recommended employers install air filters that remove harmful particles in their workspaces.