Heavy Breathing

Air pollution exacts a serious psychological and economic toll in the workplace

Breathe. Just breathe.

Only, it’s not always that simple.

When the air is choked with pollutants, it incites a litany of physical ailments. But the toxic smog that often enshrouds many cities around the world also exacts a deep psychological toll that hits businesses in their bottom lines.

According to research by Ryan Fehr, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, the stress of coping with air pollution makes us less likely to help coworkers and more likely to engage in counterproductive behaviors on the job,

“If we’re only looking at the physical health effects and not also looking at how it impacts our lives on a psychological level,” Fehr says, “then we’re underestimating the impact of air pollution.”

Particulate matters

Around the world, air pollution is reaching hazardous levels with growing frequency.

Its physiological effects are well-documented. Critical masses of suspended particulate matter make breathing difficult, damage the lungs and strain the cardiovascular system.

But Fehr wondered whether there is also a psychological cost to urban smog. To find out, he collaborated with a group of Chinese researchers—Kai Chi Yam (National University of Singapore), Wei He (Nanjing University), Jack Ting-Ju Chiang (Peking University) and Wu Wei (Wuhan University)—who had firsthand experience with their home country’s extraordinary levels of air pollution. At the time, Yam and Chiang were doctoral students and Wei a visiting professor at the Foster School.

To begin accounting for the psychological cost of air pollution, an inescapable source of stress, the team decided to measure its effect on positive and negative workplace behaviors.

Bad air, bad behavior

Fehr and his co-authors asked 155 employees working in a large industrial city in central China to log two weeks of daily observations in a diary. The participants noted the perceived severity of air pollution each day (validated by objectively measured pollution levels). They also described their daily energy levels, recounted how many times they helped a colleague, and tabulated the number of times they slipped into counterproductive behaviors at work, such as slacking off, daydreaming, taking extended breaks, surfing the internet, making fun of coworkers or working out personal matters.

The diarists reported feeling unusually depleted on days they rated air pollution levels as severe. And on those high-pollution days, compared to clear-air days, they also recounted fewer instances of offering help and more instances of slacking off or lashing out.

Ryan Fehr

“The perception of air pollution severity taxes employees’ resources of self-control,” Fehr explains. “This depletion results in decreased organizational citizenship behavior and increased counterproductive work behavior.

“Not only does air pollution make us ill physiologically, but psychologically as well.”

Cumulative cost

Fehr acknowledges that the scope of this study is small, and just the first step toward calculating the complete cost of air pollution. But if the individual psychological effects seem minor, he says to consider those effects in aggregate.

“It’s not just that air pollution causes us to cough or makes us sick or shortens our lifespan. All of those things are extremely impactful on a personal level, on a moral level, on an economic level,” he says. “But in the workplace, there is this additional direct effect: we’re just not as good as workers when there is this constant source of anxiety and stress.”

And when you multiply this depletion of attitude, energy, attention and performance by a company, city or country full of workers, it’s easy to see how the toll becomes magnified to the point that it begins to chip away at that biggest of bottom lines: gross domestic product.

“When air quality is bad, it affects every single employee of every company who is experiencing this same source of depletion,” Fehr says.

He adds that, while we tend to pay closest attention to the problem skies over cities in places such as China, India and Nigeria, the global migration toward industrialized cities likely means more air pollution everywhere. And this is before you factor in lax environmental regulations and environmental disasters such as wildfires that are widely believed to be increasing in frequency and severity as the global climate warms.

“We studied one location in China,” Fehr says. “But there is certainly value to applying the lessons from this research to other nations throughout the world.”

Clearing the air

Fehr says that the study’s findings should compel organizations to support employees when they are stressed about air pollution.

“Just as with any kind of employee wellness program, organizations need to think about how they promote wellness around this issue of air pollution,” he says.

He recommends that organizations:

  • Allow telecommuting and flexible work schedules on days when air pollution is especially worrisome.
  • Provide employees health services to manage the physical costs of air pollution.
  • Offer workshops on coping with anxiety.
  • Issue transit passes or provide transportation for quicker trips to and from work.
  • Provide employees with resources to buy filtration masks and home filtration systems.
  • Install better air filtration systems in the workplace.

Of course, these are only “Band-Aid” solutions to a systematic problem that is too big for any individual or organization to solve alone.

“Ultimately, nations will have to deal with the issue of air pollution more broadly,” says Fehr, a Michael G. Foster Endowed Fellow. “But organizations should be more proactive in encouraging better policy.”

Polluted work: A self-control perspective on air pollution appraisals, organizational citizenship, and counterproductive work behavior,” was published in the November 2017 issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.