How Does Air Pollution Impact Leaders and Their Followers?

Air pollution is rising across the globe, causing harmful physical outcomes (e.g., fatalities, birth defects) and harmful psychological outcomes (e.g., anxiety). New research (Khan et al., 2023) demonstrates the effects on organizational leaders who are exposed to it, as well as followers who were not even exposed to it themselves.


Researchers conducted their study in twelve Indian cities, where air pollution is a major everyday concern capable of causing death. They recruited leaders whose followers were geographically separated from them (i.e. they worked remotely in another location) to isolate the effects of the leader’s air pollution exposure. Leaders and their followers completed surveys for ten consecutive workdays.

The researchers found that air pollution did have a negative impact on leaders. Specifically, leaders with greater exposure to air pollution experienced more coughing, sneezing, and irritation, as well as more bad moods. Interestingly, these negative effects did not stop with the leader. Followers experienced an increase in abusive supervision and laissez-faire leadership, which occurs when leaders withdraw from leadership responsibilities.


The researchers offer practical suggestions to mitigate the negative effects of air pollution for employees. First, organizations should alleviate air pollution concerns by allowing remote work on high air pollution days, or even allowing sick days or commuting flexibility. Further, organizations located in cities with high levels of pollution could utilize air purifiers or supply masks to employees. Lastly, organizations should be on the lookout for leaders who may be experiencing pollution-related complaints, which could allow them to take corrective measures.


Khan, U. A., Patel, C., & Barnes, C. M. (2023). A breath of toxic air: The relationship between appraised air pollution, abusive supervision, and laissez-faire leadership through the dual-mediating pathways of negative affect and somatic complaints. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.

Image credit: istockphoto/SpicyTruffel