Better Air, More Productivity?

A new study adds to the growing body of research linking indoor pollution with a reduction in productivity.
By: | January 15, 2018 • 4 min read
Ceiling Air conditioner panel with dirty dusting

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.”

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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.”

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