People are the lifeblood of any company. Efficient, top-performing employees can propel your business to success, and a sluggish workforce can drive it into the ground. The bad news is that your employees are humans, not machines, and are susceptible to the adverse effects of air pollution.
Poor air quality isn’t just an individual problem. At a global scale, air pollution costs the world economy trillions of dollars each year, and on a local level, air pollution can have similar effects on your business.
In this article, we’re going to focus on the employee side of business; namely, we're going to address how air pollution impacts the cognitive functioning and health of employees. So, read on to learn more about how air pollutants negatively impact employee performance and why air quality monitoring should be a staple of the modern business world.
How Air Pollution Affects Human Cognition
Cognition, quite simply, refers to the process of thinking, including memory functions, decision-making, critical analysis, and even creativity. These processes are all crucial for running or working for a company. Some air pollutants have specific effects on the brain and nervous system that can disrupt normal cognitive functioning.
Among these pollutants, particulate matter, VOCs, and lead are the most overtly detrimental to your brain. Particulate matter causes oxidative stress and inflammation of the central nervous system (including your brain), causing damage over the long-term. VOC’s are often associated with SBS, or Sick Building Syndrome, and with memory and concentration impairment.
While we may not see as much lead paint as we used to, lead is still classified as a criteria air pollutant with the EPA. Much like PM2.5, lead can pass through the blood-brain barrier (BBB), damaging the brain and central nervous system severely.
When compared to particulate matter and lead, carbon dioxide doesn’t seem to be on the same playing field. The cognitive effects of CO2 are a lot more subtle, but can make a significant difference when it comes to employee productivity. At levels commonly found in meeting rooms, carbon dioxide can reduce focus, increase feelings of tiredness and drowsiness, and even give people a headache. Because carbon dioxide is found at high concentrations in human exhalations, CO2 levels can quickly rise in crowded, air-tight rooms.
What Does Air Pollution Mean for Businesses?
When it comes down to it, how does air pollution impact businesses? Well, there are four main impact areas: productivity, absentee rates and sick leave, recruiting, and opportunity losses.
Air Pollution Drains Employee Productivity
Productivity really is the meat and potatoes of employee performance optimization, and air pollution can drag your productivity numbers down big time through its cognitive effects.
For example, PMs alone can cause a 5% to 6% dip in productivity. While people often think they’re safe just because they’re nestled in a cozy office, the effects of outdoor exposure don’t necessarily stop at the door. The brain inflammation caused by fine dust takes time to return to normal, especially if 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 much more challenging and office communication more difficult. 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.
Sick Leave and Absenteeism Correlate with Air Pollution
Among other cognitive effects, indoor and outdoor air pollutants can exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions or even create new ones. When people are too sick to come in for work, it can disrupt the office environment and make it difficult to maintain project schedules. Likewise, air pollution, especially particulate matter, is closely associated with higher rates of sick leave, up to 20 years after exposure!
Another phenomenon to watch out for is Sick Building Syndrome. As the name implies, Sick Building Syndrome is an illness that develops after exposure to a building, and it is often tied into indoor air quality issues. Not only will your employees not work at their best when inside the building, but it can make it difficult to attract new workers.
Air Pollution Makes for Revolving-Door-Recruiting
Indoor air pollution can cause health issues beyond cognitive drains. SBS 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, interviewing, and onboarding often less-qualified individuals.
Opportunities Are Lost Due to Pollution-Related Risk Aversion
Since we’re well into the 21st century, it’s very easy to assume that scientists know everything there is to know about the effects of air pollution. We’ve been studying this topic for decades, so what's left to uncover? One of the most fascinating facets of pollution-related study is that researchers continue to discover new effects caused by air pollution.
Of these effects, the way air pollution impacts decision-making and risk aversion is quite interesting and subtle. As our cognitive abilities decline in the face of air pollution, our confidence in our ability to make decision shifts. We become reluctant to take risks, and as a result, air pollution is associated with risk aversion.
A study performed by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health investigated the link between stockbrokers in the New York City metropolitan area and air pollution. These researchers found that increases in particulate pollution correlated to lower returns on the NYSE. Fine dust also correlated with market risk aversion, measured with the “fear index.”
While stock market trading seems to be too specific to generalize, this is far from the case. High-level positions across a range of industries all require cognitively-demanding skill sets, which are known to decline after exposure to air pollution. Risk aversion, as well, can cause strategic planners to lose out on key opportunities.
Overall, the economic impacts of air pollution on businesses are far more long-term, subtle, and encompassing than perhaps initially thought.
Why is Air Quality Monitoring Important for Businesses?
It’s simple enough to state that air pollution is harmful, but where do we go from here? What is an actionable, proven way to help reduce pollution-related costs? The answer: air quality monitoring.
Air quality monitoring provides vital diagnostic information about indoor air quality. After all, we can’t see air pollution; how do we know if air pollution is truly responsible for absentee rates or productivity drains? Without air quality data, the impact of air pollution is one big question mark.
Once an air quality issue has been identified, you can implement decisions to improve your IAQ, such as increasing ventilation rates or replacing your HVAC system's filters, which can save you money in the long-run. An air quality monitor can keep tabs on your air quality, enabling you to track and measure the effectiveness of improvement efforts. You can be sure that your employees are working efficiently, without the constraints of air pollution.
While air quality testing also provides air quality data, this is often a one-off occurrence. Air quality testing is not as effectual as ongoing air quality monitoring for measuring air quality improvements over time, and air quality testing can also be costly.
Overall, air quality monitoring is a cost-effective way to not only determine if air pollution is limiting your company, but also an excellent way to keep track and quantify improvements made to mitigate the effects of air pollution. To find out more about the power of air quality data, view our case study below!