Most people know that smog can pose health risks — from coughing and difficulty breathing to increased risk of heart attack — but a new study shows that air pollution may also have a detrimental on our brains and how much workers can accomplish at the office.
In a paper published earlier this summer, U.S.-based researchers analyzed how nearly 5,000 workers at call centres for Ctrip, China’s largest travel agency in Shanghai and Nantong, functioned on days when pollution levels were elevated.
By combing the company’s personal records, the researchers found that on average a 10-point increase in the local Air Quality Index readings, which measure the concentration of pollutants over a specific period of time, resulted in a 0.35 per cent decline the number of calls handled by Ctrip workers.
“We found a surprisingly robust relationship between daily air pollution levels and worker productivity,” the authors wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
Ctrip’s extensive details outlining its workers’ productivity that made the research possible, including daily completed calls, the length of breaks and time logged in.
Overall, the researchers suggest that findings show workers are five to six per cent more productive when pollution levels fall within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “good” range of 0-50 Air Quality Index (AQI) than when it qualifies for the “unhealthy” range of 151 to 200 AQI.
Furthermore, it didn’t take much air pollution to cause a decline in worker productivity.
The authors said they found “significant” effects even when air quality levels were in the range of 101 to 150 AQI, what EPA deems “unhealthy for sensitive groups,” which is commonly seen in many major U.S. cities.
In 2014, Los Angeles had 13 days with AQI readings higher than 150, while Phoenix had nearly triple that number at 33 days, half of which topped 200.
The authors said these workplace effects from pollution could also have massive financial consequences.
They estimated that smog could be cost Shanghai alone “billions of dollars” each year in lost productivity.
While they admit “more work needs to be done,” they say the findings may indicate that pollution is causing a decline in the cognitive function of workers .
They pointed to research indicating that pollutants are small enough to enter the bloodstream, travel into the central nervous system and become embedded deep in the brain stem.
This, in turn, can cause inflammation of the central nervous system, stress on the cerebral cortex and damage the blood vessels in the brain.
The authors also said exposure to pollutants has also been connected to lower intelligence and “diminished performance” in cognitive tasks.
“If the negative impact on productivity that we found in our research are the result of diminished cognitive function, it could mean that the negative impact of pollution on productivity may be greatest in higher-skilled jobs,” the authors warn.
The authors suggest that business might be able to offset the negative effects of pollution by installing high-efficiency particulate air filters, which must remove 99.97 per cent of particles that are 0.3 micrometres in diametre according to the U.S. Department of Energy.