Why air pollution is damaging more than just your breathing
The worse the pollution gets, the higher the costs multiply for business
Air pollution caused some 1.6 million people in China to die prematurely in 2013, according to research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) early this year.
The University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health found that air pollution caused some 2,000 premature deaths in Hong Kong and public health costs amounted to HK$27 billion in 2015.
And late last year, severe smog caused the government to issue Beijing’s first ever pollution “red alert”, closing down schools.
Most of us are well aware of the health effects brought by airborne pollution and the resulting costs this brings with it. But less known is the psychological effect it has on our behaviour, and consequently our performance in the workplace.
Such psychological effect is seldom considered when assessing pollution’s true economic impact.
In a recent research study. My research colleagues and I examined the effect of air pollution on workplace behaviour in the city of Wuhan in central China – a country infamous for having some of the most dangerously polluted urban environments in the world.
In our study we focused on a behavioural theory that essentially says that an individual’s self-control draws upon a limited pool of mental resources, one that can be used up and needs opportunities to restore.
Air pollution can drain our self-control resources psychologically, causing a range of conditions including insomnia, feelings of anxiety or even depression.
Through a study of 161 full-time employees across different industries, our research examined how pollution affects two kinds of behaviour – organisational citizenship behaviour and counterproductive workplace behaviour.
Organisational citizenship behaviour relates to employee actions that contribute towards the functioning of the firm, but are optional and not specifically part of their job. Some might label it “going above and beyond the call of duty” which includes actions such as willingness to be helpful to others, to engage with their team beyond their job scope, or to take action that protects or improves the firm’s image.
The second behaviour is just the flipside. Counterproductive behaviour includes a range of negative employee actions such as working on personal matters during work hours, as well as rudeness, hostility or even outright bullying towards colleagues. A common term for this might be “deviance at the workplace”.
In our research we asked participants to record daily diary entries rating their perception of pollution levels, their level of mental resource depletion as well as organisational citizenship and counterproductive workplace behaviours.
We found a clear link between high air pollution and decreased levels of organisational citizenship behaviour. Likewise increased pollution saw a corresponding and marked increase in counterproductive workplace behaviour.
Taking into account variations for gender and age, we observed that air pollution leads to a decrease in self-control resource, which in turn leads to increased counterproductive and decreased organisational citizenship behaviours. Specifically the data gathered showed that the severity of air pollution accounted for an average of around 10 per cent of an individual’s daily self-control resource depletion.
The impact of air pollution makes us less giving or engaged at work and more deviant.
Moreover, in line with ego depletion theory it is apparent that both the direct physiological impact of air pollution and the individual’s own perception of its severity act to deplete resources affecting self-control.
A worker may experience little or no health effects from pollution while another in the same office may suffer badly. Likewise one individual’s perception of what constitutes “severe” pollution may be very different from another.
An essential factor in determining an individual’s ability to manage the effects of drained self-control resources is the support they receive – or feel they receive – from those around them. For example, demonstrations of active support from the firm can go some way to replenish an employee’s mental resource pool.
Indeed our study also found that the negative effects of air pollution on employees’ behaviour were mitigated when organisational support was high – i.e. when the employee perceived that their supervisor or firm was concerned for their well-being.
We also came across firms taking active steps to tackle the immediate effects of pollution, such as installing more effective air filters in their offices.
Similarly supportive firms might provide additional work breaks or the option to work from home on high pollution days, or they may provide easier and better access to healthcare.
While this favours an argument that firms should do all that they can to support employees exposed to severe air pollution, all of this comes with a cost to the firm.
The worse the pollution gets, the higher the costs multiply for business – so at a broader level the best option would obviously be if there were no pollution at all.
By conducting studies like ours we can better understand the true social and economic implications of pollution, and in turn add weight to the financial argument for stronger and more effective policies to tackle pollution at source.
And in turn, create a cleaner and healthier environment for Hong Kong and China’s next generation to grow up in.
Sam Yam Kai Chi is Assistant Professor of Management & Organization at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.