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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

The Science-Backed Excuse You Can Use When You're Feeling Unproductive

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We all have things to complain about in our office. It’s too warm during the winter, too cold during the summer, too crowded, too loud, too quiet, too stuffy, too bright, not bright enough.

And usually, these issues start and end at just that, complaints. There’s no good fix to please everyone, so you learn to adjust, whether that means wearing more (or less) clothing, buying seat supports, or investing in noise-canceling headphones.

But what if these problems weren’t just making you slightly uncomfortable, but were actually affecting your productivity? (Are you taking notes yet?)

According to a recent study published in Harvard Business Review, you can blame your office’s air quality for your inability to get all your work done.

Researchers from Harvard, Syracuse, and SUNY Upstate Medical had 24 employees spend six days over the course of two weeks in a controlled workspace. While the employees went about their daily routine, the researchers altered the room’s conditions, including how much outdoor air they ventilated in, how many chemicals, such as those from dry erase markers and building materials, were concentrated in the air, and the levels of carbon dioxide.

What they found is that better air really is better for you and your job:

We found that breathing better air led to significantly better decision-making performance among our participants. We saw higher test scores across nine cognitive function domains when workers were exposed to increased ventilation rates, lower levels of chemicals, and lower carbon dioxide. 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.

Not only did their results prove that proper ventilation’s necessary for maximum productivity, but also that buildings that are green-certified and consistently maintain a comfortable temperature and humidity encourage better performance.

OK, so you probably don’t have the authority to hire a construction crew to fix the ventilation, or even to open all the windows. But this study might make you feel better on a day when you can’t seem to get your head in the game.

Maybe you’re not being lazy, maybe it’s just the air quality that’s making it hard for you to focus on those spreadsheet calculations.

And hey, maybe it’s also the air quality that’s pushing you toward Instagram scrolling instead of focusing on that conference call.

It’s not out of the question.