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The Surprising Effect of Air Pollution on Your Career

Topics: Data & Research
Air pollution
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Haze, smoke, ozone and smog. There are a lot of ways to talk about air pollution, but you usually don’t think about it when you’re sitting at your desk.

Turns out, air pollution you can see outside can definitely affect your ability to work inside, where you might have figured it doesn’t exist.

Where Air Pollution Happens

When it comes to cities where air pollution can be a big problem, you don’t have to be in a big one to feel the effects. According to data from the American Lung Association, cities in California top the list of places with ozone issues (including Los Angeles, Fresno and Bakersfield in the top three), but in the top 20, there’s also Denver, Colorado; Houston, Texas; and Hartford, Connecticut.

Cities with year-round particle pollution include Fairbanks, Alaska and Cleveland, Ohio. Particle pollution, or particulate matter, comes in the form of dust or debris in the air that can make it hard to breathe and/or see long distances. It looks like a haze in the horizon. Cities with short-term air quality issues like particle pollution can make the ALA’s list because of events like wildfires, which can bring smoke into cities and towns for weeks or months on end. Top contenders include Missoula, Montana; Logan, Utah; and even Seattle, Washington, where PayScale is located.

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What Air Quality Means to Your Office Life

So, it’s smoggy outside. Why should that concern you at your desk? Plenty. Recent studies show that sedentary office workers can feel the effects of bad air quality as well as those working outdoors in more physical jobs. Studying air monitors over ten years, Matthew Neidell, an economist at Columbia and a large team of researchers found that air quality directly affected productivity, inside and out.

“The biggest impact of air pollution was measured in farm workers in California’s Central Valley…On days that had higher readings of ground-level ozone—a harmful gas formed when tailpipe emissions mix with sunlight—worker productivity…fell 5.5%,” writes Oliver Staley at Quartz.

He adds that researchers then “examined how particulate matter affected office workers, looking at call-center workers for a travel agency with offices in Shanghai and Nantong, cities in China with pollution levels comparable to that of large US cities.” They found that when pollution went up, productivity went down.

What You Can Do to Breathe Easier

A little drop in productivity might not seem like a big deal, but it adds up. Finding ways to raise our productivity at work is often a matter of deep interest for those looking at the bottom line every day. So when you’re asked to be efficient and make every keystroke count, why wouldn’t you also want to invest in keeping those drains to productivity fixed as well?

For air-pollution issues, lots can be done on the global scale to cut our fossil fuel emissions and invest in smart technologies that help the planet. On the personal scale, you can make sure your workplace does the little things that keep your air as clean as can be, like this checklist from the EPA which includes small tasks like keeping vents open and unblocked and complying with the building’s smoking policy or even just using a vacuum with a high-quality filter to suck up small particles you’d rather not breathe in.

It doesn’t take much effort to understand that clean air is important to health and wellness and we still have a long ways to go, both locally and globally to fix air quality issues. If you suspect there are air quality issues affecting your workplace, bring them up with the appropriate folks, and you’ll hopefully be breathing easier soon!


Do you live and work somewhere with air quality issues? How do you think you’ve been impacted? We want to hear about it! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

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