How air pollution impacts workplace behaviour

Here in Singapore the haze is back, and with it complaints of sore throats, itchy eyes and government warnings to stay indoors or face the consequences.

Most of us are well aware of the health effects brought by airborne pollution – some from personal experience – and of the resulting costs this brings with it. Recent data from the World Health Organization for example suggests that air pollution accounts for 3.7 million premature deaths annually around the world.

Although the direct physiological effects of air pollution are often easily apparent, less known is the psychological effect it has on our behaviour, and consequently our performance in the workplace.

By reducing our pool of mental self-control resources the impact of air pollution makes us less giving or engaged at work and more deviant

But this too exacts a cost, one that is rarely factored in when assessing the true true economic impact of pollution.

In a recent research study we 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 China the causes of pollution are of course rather different. Nonetheless, as the haze is made up of similar particles and the methods for measuring pollutants are the same we can reasonably assume that here in Singapore it has comparable effects.

Interacting with nature

Since the late 1960s Singapore has marketed itself as a City in a Garden; a philosophy based not just on aesthetics, but on the idea that a close association with nature brings social and hence economic benefits too.

singaporeSingpore has branded itself as a ‘city in a garden’Several scientific studies support this idea, although almost all have focused on the positive effects of interacting with nature. Few, surprisingly, have looked at the negative impact of cutting off such interaction.

In our study we focused on a behavioural theory known as ego depletion – the idea 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.

Not only does air pollution negatively affect levels of oxygen and glucose in the blood – both of which affect self-control – it can also drain our self-control resources psychologically, causing a range of conditions including insomnia, feelings of anxiety or even depression.

Through a diary-based 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.

The first behaviour relates to employee actions that contribute towards the functioning of the firm, but are optional and not specifically part of their job. These might include an individual’s 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.

Some might label it ‘going above and beyond the call of duty’.

The second ‘counterproductive’ behaviour is the flipside of this and includes a range of negative employee actions. These might include 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’.

Perceived pollution

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.

ThinkAloud4From the results we found a clear link between high air pollution and decreased levels of organisational citizenship behaviour. Likewise increased pollution also saw a corresponding and marked increase in counterproductive workplace behaviour.

Taking into account variations for gender and age, we found that air pollution leads to a decrease in self-control resource, which in turn leads to increased counterproductive and decreased organizational 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.

In other words, by reducing our pool of mental self-control resources 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.

Organisational support

Of course, how this manifests itself can vary considerably. 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.

In our research we 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.

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