How air pollution affects office workers—and the economy

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Courtesy of Camfil Ltd

FOR anyone who has tried jogging through smog, the physically sapping impacts of air pollution should come as no surprise. But pollution doesn’t just slow down runners, it hampers workers too. Research by Tom Chang of the University of Southern California and colleagues found that pear packers working indoors were slowed by air pollution even at levels well below current air-quality standards. Might sedentary office workers indoors, also be slowed down by poor air quality?

In a second paper, Mr Chang and his colleagues studied China, where air pollution is a major problem. China releases a daily air-pollution index (API)—also referred to as an air-quality index—which rates air quality based on the health risk it represents. Anything above 100 is bad news. In Shanghai the index periodically hits 150, putting everyone’s health at risk. To establish the correlation between productivity and air pollution, the authors focus on office workers in two call centres in Shanghai and Nantong, where productivity can be measured by counting the number of calls workers handle per day.

What they find isn’t good. On days with higher air pollution, workers spend more time on breaks and complete fewer calls. On average, a 10% increase in the API was associated with a 0.35% decrease in number of calls handled per day. That quickly adds up: workers in the call centres studied are estimated to be 6% more productive on low-pollution days than on days when pollution is high. The likely culprit for office workers is particulate matter, which can easily enter buildings through windows and vents. The smallest of these particles enter the blood stream and the central nervous system, affecting concentration and mental performance.

Activity in the service sector, much of which happens in offices in polluted cities, accounts for 68.5% of global GDP. Mr Chang and his colleagues reckon that a reduction in China’s air pollution index by just 10 points could boost worker output in China by at least 15 billion yuan ($2.2 billion) per year. The damaging effects of particulate matter on productivity may also be larger in more cognitively demanding professions—suggesting the benefits of reduced air pollution could be greater still. The implications extend far beyond China; damaging pollution occurs even in major Western cities. In 2014 air pollution in Los Angeles exceeded the 100 mark on 90 days, by an average of 21 points. If air pollution had been lowered to 100 on all these days, service-sector output could have been $374m higher, reckon the authors. Cleaner air would allow both bosses and workers to breathe easier.

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