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Working From Home? Just Breathe

Research shows how air quality affects our willingness to work.

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Woman working from home
Source: Stockpic/Pexels CC0

As many of us turn to working from home amidst the increasingly familiar social distancing protocols, finding ways to work within a space primarily designed for living — and the comfort, warmth, and relaxation that entails — can be challenging.

How can we keep our productivity up without succumbing to our cozy surroundings?

Just as researchers and clinicians recommend limiting the time and activities we do in our beds to those we associate with rest and relaxation, like sleep, the same logic can apply to a designated work area in our home: By having a desk in our bedroom dedicated for work, we form a psychological association between that place and activity, thus increasing the likelihood of actually working when we’re there, and leaving the rest of our home for its intended use.

Further, when it comes to working from home — or anywhere, for that matter — letting fresh air in not only helps us feel better; it improves our cognitive functioning and willingness to work, too:

In a study published by researchers at Harvard University, Syracuse University and SUNY Upstate Medical, 24 workers, which included managers, architects, and designers, were asked to spend six days over a two week period in a highly controlled work environment at the Syracuse Center of Excellence, wherein they were asked to complete their normal work routine from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Unbeknownst to them, while they worked, the researchers altered the air quality, changing it to habitual office air quality to optimal, which entailed doubling the amount of outside air into the room and lowering the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs included surface cleaners, dry erase markers, dry cleaned clothing, and building materials which one typically finds in an office environment. The researchers also tested three levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air: low levels (600ppm) usually found in seen in highly ventilated areas; medium levels (950ppm) usually found in offices; and higher levels (1400ppm) usually found in seen in schools.

Each day, the workers were tested on their decision-making performance. The study found that breathing better air led to significantly better decision-making performance in response to higher ventilation rates and lower levels of carbon dioxide and VOCs.

The second phase of the study, which similarly administered tests, looked at participants in their regular environments, namely comparing workers in regular offices to workers in offices who had received “green certification” (meaning they had increased air quality, amongst other features).

Indeed, the results were much the same: According to the researchers, "the results showed the biggest improvements in areas that tested how workers used information to make strategic decisions and how they plan, stay prepared, and strategize during crises. These are exactly the skills needed to be productive in the knowledge economy."

While we know from other studies of significance that general air pollutants lead to adverse health events on the human body, leading to increased incidences of lung and heart issues, for instance, a study on mice published in Nature in 2011 concluded that pollutants in the air also altered affective responses, increasing depressive behaviors, and impaired learning and memory performance.

Similarly, as research over the last 30 years has shown, poor air quality decreases the productivity of call-center employees, dampens student exam performance, and even affects an investor’s willingness to get to work.

At the end of the day, better air quality means better cognitive functioning, whether it'd be decision-making or even the willingness to work. While you may have fewer pollutants at home, if you're having a tough time getting to work, open your windows, and, when back in the office, suggest the same change, and bring in a breath of fresh air.


Allen, J. G., MacNaughton, P., Satish, U., Santanam, S., Vallarino, J., & Spengler, J. D. (2016). Associations of cognitive function scores with carbon dioxide, ventilation, and volatile organic compound exposures in office workers: a controlled exposure study of green and conventional office environments. Environmental health perspectives, 124(6), 805-812.

Meyer, S., & Pagel, M. (2017). Fresh Air Eases Work–The Effect of Air Quality on Individual Investor Activity (No. w24048). National Bureau of Economic Research.

MacNaughton, P., Pegues, J., Satish, U., Santanam, S., Spengler, J., & Allen, J. (2015). Economic, environmental and health implications of enhanced ventilation in office buildings. International journal of environmental research and public health, 12(11), 14709-14722.

Fonken, L. K., Xu, X., Weil, Z. M., Chen, G., Sun, Q., Rajagopalan, S., & Nelson, R. J. (2011). Air pollution impairs cognition, provokes depressive-like behaviors and alters hippocampal cytokine expression and morphology. Molecular psychiatry, 16(10), 987-995.

Spielman, A. J., Saskin, P., & Thorpy, M. J. (1987). Treatment of chronic insomnia by restriction of time in bed. Sleep, 10(1), 45-56.