Bad air quality can lead to poor employee productivity, NUS research finds

Air pollution is linked to lower employee productivity, according to a study by the National University of Singapore.

If you’re feeling unproductive at work, there’s a chance that it’s got to do with exposure to poor air quality.

Exposing oneself to air pollution over a period of time has detrimental health effects. But a study by the National University of Singapore (NUS), published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics on Jan 3, has found that it also reduces employee productivity.

The researchers observed that employee productivity falls by 1 per cent when PM2.5 – the number of fine particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter – in the air increases by 10 microgrammes per cubic metre and stays at that level for 25 days.

Poor air quality does not have an immediate effect on workers though.

Unlike previous literature, the new study found that daily fluctuations in air pollution did not immediately affect employee productivity. Rather, a drop in output was observed in cases of prolonged exposure of up to 30 days.

Associate Professor Liu Haoming – one of the three economists who did the study – explained that besides the physiological impact of pollution, there could also be a psychological element as to why productivity goes down when pollution goes up.

“Working in a highly polluted setting for long periods of time could affect your mood or disposition to work,” he said.

While there’s been plentiful research on long-term exposure to air pollution being linked to increased risk of death – from complications such as cancer or heart disease – research on how living and working in a polluted atmosphere affects productivity is very limited, partly due to worker output being difficult to quantify, the researchers said.

To study the issue, Liu and his colleagues interviewed managers at 12 firms in four separate provinces in China, before obtaining access to data to two textile mills, one in Henan and the other in Jiangsu.

The researchers then compared the number of fabric pieces each worker produced each day against the level of air pollution the worker was exposed to over time. The study lasted from Jan 2014 to May 2015.

The team of economists from the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences discovered that prolonged air pollution in China negatively impacted the productivity of textile factory workers.

These findings suggest productivity in Singapore can also be affected in times of prolonged transboundary haze, said the researchers.

Even during normal periods, productivity could decline by 1 per cent if the particle levels were raised over a fortnight or month owing to the air being more still, even if the change was only from 15 to 25 microgrammes per cubic metre, one of the researchers, Associate Professor Alberto Salvo, said.

Companies in Singapore can encourage workers to reduce their exposure to the outdoor air if pollution levels rise, said Prof Liu. “They could encourage workers to work indoors or close the windows when they are at home.”

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