Air pollutants potentially present in business premises could harm employee creativity. This is according to a study carried out by researchers at a Singapore-based university, who explain that “this could have serious consequences for industries that rely on creativity for the majority of their work.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there will be more than three million annual deaths linked to indoor air pollution in 2020. In a report dated December 2022, the health authority indicates that this type of pollution may be responsible for an increased risk of non-communicable diseases such as stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer. If we most often mention the quality of the air in homes, business premises are not spared, and their impact is not limited to the physical health of employees.
A study by a team of researchers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore looked into the matter, suggesting that high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), chemicals released by certain products, could harm the creativity of employees. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, this work is based on a specific technique, Serious Brick Play, inspired by the LEGO Serious Play method. Which is commonly used in seminars, training, and even meetings, to improve business performance, in particular by stimulating thinking, imagination and communication via LEGO bricks.
Eighty-seven undergraduate and postgraduate students participated in this study which spanned six weeks. In a controlled environment reminiscent of an indoor workspace, they were asked three times to read a summary of a global problem, such as climate change or mental health, then were asked to propose a solution via the Serious Brick Play method and detailing it in writing. All in an environment where air quality varied, particularly for carbon dioxide and VOCs, thanks to a partnership with global air filter manufacturer Camfil. LEGO models, like descriptions, were subject to a rating system based on originality, fluidity and construction.
Pollution, an obstacle to creativity
Verdict, the researchers found that high levels of VOCs, much more present in business premises than one might believe since they come from detergents, pesticides, perfumes, paints, or even aerosols , had affected the creativity of the participants in the study. Scientists indicate that a 72% reduction in TVOC (total volatile organic compounds) could improve a participant’s creative potential by 12%.
“While most people associate indoor air quality with effects on the lungs, especially since the global pandemic, our study shows that it could also impact the mind and creative cognition, or the ability to use knowledge in an unconventional way. Our results suggest that relatively low levels of TVOC, even if well below the accepted threshold, could have an impact on an individual’s creative potential“, specifies Professor Ng Bing Feng, who co-directed this work, in a press release.
Some sectors are obviously more impacted than others, as the researchers point out, but this research shows the need for companies to improve indoor air quality. “This could have serious consequences for industries that rely on creativity for most of their work. For example, artists often use paints and thinners that release high levels of volatile organic compounds and may not be aware that they need adequate ventilation to remove them from their workplace. The study results also show that minor adjustments to the office, such as reducing the use of diffusers or providing adequate ventilation, can have a positive impact on employees and their productivity.“, concludes one of the co-authors of the study.