September 1, 2019

Low Productivity? Check What’s in the Air


We all know about the negative impact of air pollution on our health, but rarely do we think about how our productivity at work is affected by polluted air. Meanwhile, air quality directly affects our cognitive performance, particularly our abilities to focus, strategize, and respond to a crisis.

Researchers from the National University of Singapore addressed this problem in their study published in January of 2019.

Over a period of one year, they collected data on the productivity of employees working in Chinese textile mills. Since their daily salary is based on the amount of fabric produced per day, it was easy to keep track of the shift in productivity of the workers. So, 2 parameters were measured: daily productivity, and the concentration of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) to which the workers were exposed.

The results showed that an increase in PM2.5, by 10 micrograms per cubic meter sustained for almost a month, reduced daily output by 1%. Even though the effects were subtle, over time this could add up to a significant decrease in output.

The researchers highlighted that besides the negative health effects, there could be a psychological cause as well.

“Working in a highly polluted setting for long periods of time could affect your mood or disposition to work,” Associated Professor Liu explains.

Another study was aimed at finding a correlation between cognitive performance and air quality scores based on the readings of three major pollutants: sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and particulate matter smaller than 10 micrometers (PM10).

The study referred to the Chinese air quality database and cognitive test scores from nationally representative surveys of Chinese families and individuals. It suggests that polluted air may impede cognitive ability as people become older, especially for less-educated men. Researchers found that cumulative exposure to air pollution impedes verbal test scores. As people age, the negative effect becomes more pronounced.

These and other studies showed that business owners should solve the problem of air pollution in the workplace as there is a high risk to their employees’ health, and it’s also harmful from an economic perspective. Employees’ speed of reaction, productivity, and concentration might be undermined by poor working conditions caused by polluted air, and they can experience the so-called “sick building syndrome”.

Here are some tips on how to improve air quality in the office:

  1. Check the air quality score at the workplace. In case of a high concentration of air pollutants, try to identify the source. It could be a lack of proper ventilation, the absence of air filters in ventilation systems, or emission of chemicals inside the room. Surprisingly, even copy machines can produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
  2. Check any water leakage in the office which can cause mold formation.
  3. Schedule cleaning and maintenance of HVAC systems.
  4. Set new office equipment next to the air vent.
  5. Plan for renovations and/or remodeling with a professional interior designer and/or an architect.
  6. Store all the paints and adhesives in well-ventilated rooms.
  7. Keep the office clean: vacuum/mop the floors and carpets regularly.
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