Are your workers making mistakes? Could be air pollution messing with their brains.

Ananya Roy

Great companies focus on employees first and spend millions of dollars every year to fine-tune productivity. Now, accumulating evidence shows that air pollution is making your workforce not just sicker — but also less productive and more error-prone. 

There's no hiding from the damaging health effects of air pollution. Less well-known, perhaps, is the fact that air pollution also directly affects the brain, decreasing cognitive performance and affecting behavior and mood.

This is true for indoor as well as outdoor workers, and it has a direct impact on the companies they work for.

Stock returns plunged nearly 12% with dirty air

  • Stock traders in Germany were 10% less likely to sit down and trade when air pollution levels increased by relatively small amounts, even after accounting for investor, environmental and market-specific factors. A study of daily data from the S&P 500 index and from an air quality sensor near Wall Street also found stock returns to be nearly 12 percent lower on days with higher air pollution.
  • Similar results were seen in New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq data analyses. Researchers hypothesize that the stock returns dropped because pollution affected traders' mood and risk perception.
  • Another study on the productivity of indoor workers at a pear-packing factory showed that an increase in fine particulate matter — a harmful pollutant that can easily get indoors — leads to a 6% decrease in packing speeds inside the factory.
  • Meanwhile, international businesses in heavily air-polluted cities are having to offer a form of "hazard pay" to woo top talent. Coca-Cola, for example, offered a 15% bonus for employees willing to move to China, only to see some of them return home after citing pollution-related health concerns for themselves and their children.

Air pollution costs the global economy $225 billion each year in lost labor income. Foul air and traffic congestion routinely disrupt daily business operations in other ways as well.

Researchers have found that pollutants like particulate matter can cause inflammation in a person's blood stream that, in turn, can cause brain dysfunction.

Children exposed in the womb and in early life, and older adults exposed to heavy pollution over time, perform worse on cognitive testing. They also have a higher risk of neuro developmental or neurodegenerative disorders such as autism or dementia.

Air pollution also affects how you feel: New evidence shows it can cause changes in happiness and increase the rate of emergency room visits for depression.

So the odds are, pollution is affecting the well-being of your entire workforce as well as your company's bottom line — regardless of which industry you're in, or whether you work in a corner office or on the factory floor.

Umpires and execs make bad calls

The increased errors in decision-making manifest themselves in surprising ways.

For example, baseball fans can expect more bad calls on days with higher levels of air pollution. One study found that umpires facing elevated levels of fine particulate matter and ambient carbon monoxide make an extra two incorrect calls per 100 decisions.

It raises a question: Is an executive who, say, makes an important call from a plane spewing exhaust on the tarmac — or who lives close to an expressway — also more prone to making mistakes?

There are ways to protect your business

There are a few things you can do right away to keep your employees safe and productivity high:

  • Ask your mayor what the city is doing to monitor air pollution. Unbeknownst to you, they may already have some good resources.
  • Advocate for cleaner air in the areas where you live and work. While the Trump administration is rolling back air quality protections, local politicians and business leaders have been stepping up, taking the lead and making moves.
  • Incorporate air pollution into your company's sustainability goals — a win-win since it helps us tackle climate change while helping your employees thrive. Companies with fleets can make an immediate impact by implementing aggressive plans to transition the bulk of their large vehicles to zero-emission vehicles.

The cumulative effects of air pollution are damaging and deadly, and your competition is already taking action. Now it's your turn.