Better Air, More Productivity?

Employers seeking to boost worker productivity would be wise to improve the air quality in their workplaces.

That’s the conclusion of a newly released report by researchers from Germany’s Leibniz University and the Columbia Business School in New York.  From 2013 to 2015, they studied 100,000 private investors to determine if changes in air quality would have any impact on the “willingness and ability to engage in office work and thereby, worker productivity,” they write in the resulting paper, Fresh Air Eases Work — The Effect of Air Quality on Individual Investor Activity. Researchers discovered that even a modest increase in pollutants had a “large and significant” negative impact on the investors’ likelihood to “sit down, log in and trade in their brokerage accounts.”

These findings are noteworthy because they demonstrate a clear correlation between indoor pollution and productivity among white-collar workers, rather than blue-collar laborers or those who work outside, according to Michaela Pagel, an assistant professor at Columbia Business School and one of the researchers involved in the study.

“Our study didn’t look at physical workers, it looked at cognitive work,” says Pagel. “We used trading as a measure of productivity because trading is a task that requires cognitive resources. The effect on trading could be extrapolated to general worker productivity.”

This new study joins a growing body of research linking indoor pollution to negative impacts on cognition, mood and worker productivity, according to Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard’s T.H. Chen School of Public Health in Cambridge, Mass.

While an increasing awareness of the effects of indoor environmental quality has emerged in recent years, researchers have been studying the issue for the past four decades, says Allen, one of the preeminent researchers in the field. The recognition of the negative impact of poor indoor air quality, he says, dates back to the 18th century. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin once stated, “I am persuaded that no common air from without is so unwholesome as the air within a closed room that has been often breathed and not changed.”

These days, the primary culprits are volatile organic compounds — chemicals commonly found in paints, furniture, and flooring, as well as deodorant, surface cleaners, dry cleaning and new carpeting. In addition, Allen says, outdoor air pollution penetrates buildings, giving office workers the proverbial double whammy in terms of both indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Allen served on a team of researchers from Harvard, Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical that found that dramatically improving indoor air quality can more than double people’s reasoning scores. In November 2014, they recruited 24 “knowledge workers” — managers, architects and designers — to spend six days in a highly controlled work environment at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. Unbeknownst to the subjects, researchers altered air-quality conditions as they performed their normal work routine.

“We did things like increase the ventilation rate or the amount of fresh outdoor air that comes inside or decrease the amount of volatile chemicals,” says Allen. “At the end of each day, we tested their cognitive function and we would see dramatic effects on people’s performance, even with subtle or obtainable enhancements to the indoor environment.”

Their findings were nothing short of remarkable, as performance in “green” conditions, including enhanced ventilation, averaged twice that of participants in conventional environments with relatively high concentrations of VOCs, such as those emitted by common office materials. Strategy scores were 183-percent higher in green conditions, while information usage and crisis response scores were 172-percent and 97-percent higher, respectively.

Allen and his team took matters one step further, pairing the percentile increase in scores to salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to assign a dollar figure to their findings. They estimated the productivity benefit from doubling ventilation rates to be $6,500 per person per year, not including other potential benefits, like reduced cases of sick building syndrome and absenteeism. According to Allen, that should serve as a call to arms for HR.

“It’s in the domain of HR executives to elevate the conversation around the true cost of operating businesses and how the building influences bottom-line costs,” says Allen. “They have a critical role to play as the green building movement becomes the healthy building movement because now we’re talking about people.”

While the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has established indoor environmental quality standards, Allen says they are outdated. (Both OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health declined to comment for this article.) Therefore, he recommends employers seek to meet standards established by non-governmental organizations. Companies can earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification by the U.S. Green Building Council, and WELL Building Standard certification by the International WELL Building Institute.

Whichever guidelines they decide to follow, employers would be wise to invest in improving air quality, says LuAnn Heinen, vice president of workforce well-being, productivity and human capital at the National Business Group on Health in Washington.

“Businesses today invest significantly in a wide range of strategies and programs to increase workforce productivity, but what has not been on the list is improved indoor air quality,” says Heinen. “Based on the strength of the evidence for this intervention, it certainly should be.”

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Julie Cook Ramirez
Julie Cook Ramirez is a Rockford, Ill.-based journalist and copywriter covering all aspects of human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]