Every day, people go through life breathing dangerous air. The World Health Organization estimates that over 91% of the world’s population breathes in polluted air. Many are unaware of the far-reaching consequences of air pollution. Outside of health concerns, indoor and outdoor pollutants impact how people think, behave, and work.
But what are the wellness implications of air pollution? And how can the prevalence of indoor, and outdoor, air pollution create real costs to businesses around the world? One way is through employee cognition.
How Air Pollution Impacts Human Cognition
Particulate matter (PM)
Particulate matter, formed through combustion, is composed of microscopic solids and liquid particles. The most dangerous kind of PM is PM2.5, or fine dust. Because it is so small, the PM2.5 inhaled into your lungs can enter your bloodstream. Once this happens, PM2.5 can even make its way to your brain and cause inflammation and disrupt neural activity.
Exposure to particulate matter, especially fine dust, can impair concentration, memory, and decision-making abilities. While scientists are still exploring the exact nature of this relationship, current research indicates that short- and long-term exposure to particulate matter compromises the mental faculties necessary to perform high-level tasks effectively.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are chemicals emitted from everyday products, including paint, carpet, and cleaning supplies. VOCs are indoor air pollutants; because people spend the majority of their time indoors at home and work, people are regularly exposed to VOCs.
In addition to physical symptoms like nose and throat irritation, VOCs reduce memory and concentration and can instigate headaches. Long-term exposure can create liver, lung, and central nervous system damage, which permanently impairs cognitive and motor abilities.
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
Elevated levels of carbon dioxide can impair cognitive functioning in the short term. Because carbon dioxide is found at high concentrations in human exhalations, CO2 levels can quickly rise in crowded, air-tight rooms. At levels commonly found in meeting rooms, carbon dioxide can reduce focus, increase feelings of tiredness and drowsiness, and even give people a headache. While these symptoms can be reduced by increasing fresh air intake, some research indicates that consistent exposure to moderately high levels can have long-term health impacts.
What Air Pollution Means for Businesses
Air pollution can create inefficiencies and costs in many ways.
Increased absentee rate
Among other cognitive effects, indoor and outdoor air pollutants can exacerbate preexisting medical conditions or create new ones. Especially relevant for CO2 and PM, air pollution can make those sensitive to air quality (asthmatics, older individuals, those with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, genetic predispositions, and people of lower socioeconomic status) too sick to come to work. Air pollution also alters the immune system, making otherwise healthy people take longer sick leaves for minor issues like colds.
Difficulty keeping top talent
Indoor air pollution can cause health issues beyond cognitive drains. SBS, or sick building syndrome, can make it uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous to work in polluted buildings. While the exact causes are unknown, incidents of SBS can be significantly reduced and managed by lowering indoor air pollutant levels (such as VOCs).
People want to work where they are valued; if given a choice, they will work at companies that invest in their health and wellness. For high-level, talented individuals, there are many places they could work. Why would they work in a building dangerous to their health? They can and will leave their current job to find a company that provides a healthy work environment.
As a result, indoor air pollution can create difficulties with worker retainment. Meaning, you now have to dedicate more time for job posting, interviews, and onboarding for often less-qualified individuals.
One of the most severe and evident impacts of air pollution is its effect on productivity. Because air pollutants inhibit a broad range of cognitive functions, people are not able to perform their best breathing polluted air.
For example, PMs alone can cause a 5% to 6% dip in productivity. Even though particulate matter usually doesn’t originate from indoors, the effects of outdoor exposure do not go away after walking inside. The brain inflammation caused by fine dust takes time to return to normal, especially if the individual has been exposed for longer durations. In the meantime, the working capabilities of the affected employees will be reduced as they struggle to concentrate.
Particulate matter is not alone, however. VOCs can impair memory, which can make multitasking more challenging and can create communication efficiencies. CO2 makes it more difficult for people to concentrate and can make employees feel tired. All of these effects boil down to less getting done in the office.
Costly risk aversion and decision-making impairment
Decision-making capabilities decline in the face of air pollutants such as PM2.5 and VOCs. And as this ability decreases, people’s confidence in the decision they are making also drops. As a result, air pollution is associated with risk aversion.
A study of stockbrokers in the New York City metropolitan area found that increase particulate pollution correlated to lower returns on the NYSE. Fine dust also correlated with market risk aversion, usually measured with the “fear index.”
While this study showed the detriment of impaired decision-making abilities on a specific job type, these effects have a broad range of impacts over many different types of business. If top-level managers are too risk-averse, they may miss out on crucial opportunities. They may overestimate risk and underestimate the potential gains, which will lower overall returns on investment. The company will lose out on the deal and lose the potential long-term advantages the deal would have afforded them.
Air pollution compromises the cognitive functions and working capabilities of employees in the workplace. Outdoor pollutants like PMs and indoor pollutants like VOCs and CO2 reduce cognitive functions like memory, concentration and focus, and decision-making capacities. In turn, these effects lower productivity, increase sick leaves, create worker retainment problems, and limit effective risk management.
What does this all add up to?
Increased business costs and lower revenue.
Like any problem, you first have to understand the problem before you can work to solve it. In a business context, there are two ways you can do this: costly professional assessments or investment in an air quality monitor. Once you know the air quality issues for your particular circumstances, you can take steps to reduce the impact of air pollution.
And don't forget - you can always get in touch with us and get to know about how air monitoring could help you and your business.