Polluted air takes toll in offices
Economists and public health researchers have found that not even working indoors in an office can protect people from the deleterious impacts of polluted air and particularly fine particulate pollution — defined as tiny particles that can travel deep into our lungs and get into the bloodstream and eventually reach the central nervous system.
The study, released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, profited from the cooperation of a large Chinese travel firm, Ctrip International, which shared data on its workers' performance with the researchers. It was conducted by Tom Chang of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California with colleagues from the University of California-San Diego and Columbia.
“Our analysis reveals a statistically significant, negative impact of pollution on the productivity of workers at the firm,” the researchers wrote. “A 10-unit increase in the air pollution index decreases the number of daily calls handled by a worker by 0.35 percent on average. To our knowledge, these results are the first evidence of an effect of pollution on white-collar labor.”
“We did the outdoor workers first, and then we moved into blue-collar work, and now, we're into white-collar work,” Chang said. “One thing is that, each step of the way, the magnitude of the effects has gone down. It affects blue-collar workers more than it affects white-collar workers.”
Nonetheless, the finest-sized pollution particles are more than capable of getting indoors. And accordingly, the study found significant effects from particulate air pollution on indoor workers — and that economically, such impacts could be very consequential.
Ctrip has call centers in Shanghai and Nantong, with a random routing of calls to the different locations. This allowed for the setup of the study: By measuring the severity of air pollution in each city daily, and relating that to the carefully logged calls of the call centers' workers, it was possible to detect a statistical relationship between the air outdoors and productivity indoors.
The study found that the productivity drop-off showed up in the length of breaks that workers took between each call they logged.
“Think about your job,” he said. “Would your productivity be affected if you had a slightly scratchy throat, your nose was running, your eyes were watering, the entire day? That's the idea here.”