We know that air pollution is bad for our health, but if you’re not outdoors picking apples or running marathons in China, is pollution still making you unproductive at your indoor office job? Recent studies suggest the answer is yes.
The studies on the effects of outdoor air pollution are no surprise to most people. For example, a study found that air pollution reduced the productivity of workers picking apples outdoors in California. Another study found that people in Chinese marathons run slower when pollution is bad. But what about people working with their brains inside air conditioned offices?
#1 The Ctrip Study
A team of researchers tracked the productivity of 4,910 employees at two Ctrip call centers in China. For these workers, measuring productivity was easy–the number of calls employees handle.
They found that when the air quality index increased by 10 points, employees answered 0.35% fewer calls. On days where the air quality index was hazardous, the call centers handled about 20,000 fewer calls.
On days when the AQI is 150, Ctrip would need to hire an extra 145 people to cover those calls. Imagine if every company needed to have their own pollution warriors for bad pollution days.
Of course, the alternative is for Ctrip to put in an army of purifiers to keep their air pollution levels down. Maybe something like the Smart Air Blast army:
#2 The German Stock Market Study
Another team of researchers analyzed air pollution and the activity of more than 100,000 stock traders in Germany from 2003 to 2015. They found that a 12ug/m3 increase in PM10 decreased the probability that stock traders would log into their computers and trade stocks by 10%. This was true even controlling for factors such as weather and the day of the week (because markets are not open on weekends).
If they had been breathing clean air, there’d have been more logins and more stock traded. Imagine if every stocktrader was breathing clean air. The stock exchange may well look like this:
How Is Air Pollution Affecting Productivity?
Of course air pollution makes people sick and take more sick days. Employees will also have to take care of sick family members. However, the CTrip study didn’t count the effect of sick days, so the effect of air pollution wasn’t from sick days.
Instead, recent research suggests that, even if we’re not getting physically sick, air pollution stull affects our brains. For example, air pollution raises blood pressure, and elevated blood pressure causes decreased cognitive performance. Air pollution also affects mood, which could decrease productivity.
The Total Cost of Pollution
Researchers found that air pollution was affecting 4,910 workers at Ctrip call centers and 100,000 stocktraders throughout Germany. How big a cost is that when we multiply it by the billions of workers around the world affected by air pollution? The OECD estimates that all of the sick days and rising health costs from will cost 1% of global GDP in 2060. That’s more than the cost of 3 million BMWs!
What Can Organizations Do?
One reason many organizations haven’t done anything to fight air pollution in their buildings is probably the sheer cost. Building filters into central air systems often cost tens of thousands of RMB and require approval from building management. Meanwhile, the stand alone purifier market is full of expensive machines.
Machines like the new Blast that are powerful enough to clean large offices yet inexpensive are still rare, but can help change the picture. For example, the Shanghai World Financial Center commisioned an analysis for its office space and found that using Blasts to clean its air would cost less than half of a central air system.
A growing body of research suggests that air pollution affects our productivity, even at our indoor desk jobs. This productivity loss is taking a toll on the global economy, but new purifiers are making it much more affordable to clean the air.
Thomas is a new Assistant Professor of Behavior Science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the founder of, a social enterprise to help people in China breathe clean air without shelling out thousands of dollars for expensive purifiers.