Does air quality also affect employee engagement?

If poor air quality makes employees sluggish and unproductive, it is time for organisations to do something about it.


We have time and again discussed factors that affect employee engagement and productivity. But who would have thought pollution will also one day feature as one of the growing concerns, when it comes to ensuring employee engagement?

The other day, a headline in a daily caught my attention, ‘To escape Delhi’s toxic air, executives seek to relocate’. The article quoted the head of a recruitment agency who had received a deluge of requests from his clients, for job placements that would take them away from Delhi. Why? Because they were done breathing the city’s polluted air.

We know that fine particulate matter in the atmosphere enters the lungs and goes into the bloodstream causing health issues, especially affecting the lungs. However, what we do not pay attention to is the fact that spending long hours in a polluted environment can affect the mood of the employees too. Back in 2016, a study had revealed that in Shanghai, air pollution was resulting in loss in productivity, which was costing the service sector billions of dollars, annually.

Pollution is definitely a bane, and employers are sitting up and taking notice because it is affecting productivity and engagement. In cities, such as Delhi, employees are increasingly developing respiratory complications and complaining of headaches, fatigue, allergies, and even digestive issues. These conditions worsen during winter, when there is fog and minimal flow of fresh air. Absenteeism goes up and productivity falls.

In all airconditioned offices of today, it is common to experience stuffiness once in a while. And the easiest solution is to open the windows to let in fresh air. But things have reached a stage where opening windows only lets in noise pollution and bad air into the already stuffy office.

Indoor air is often twice more polluted than outdoor air, because not only does it contain the pollution from outside, but also the pollution from within the building, in the form of cleaning products, building materials, dust mites, and sometimes even cooking fumes in residential buildings.

Research has shown that daily fluctuations in the pollution levels, do not actually make any immediate impact on the daily productivity levels. However, if polluted conditions prolong for a period of time, those working in such environments will begin to be less productive. They will definitely become sluggish and experience breathlessness and headaches. Some may even develop more serious issues, such as asthma, lung diseases or even heart disorders.

In China, when the effect of pollution on the productivity of workers in call centres was studied, it was found that daily air pollution levels had a significant impact on worker productivity. The employees were at least five per cent more productive when the air pollution levels were low. Being knowledge workers, if these call centre employees could be so affected, the impact of pollution on blue-collar workers is unimaginable. Each one of us is vulnerable.

According to a work published in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal, Psychological Science, not just exposure to air pollution, but even imagining exposure to air pollution can cause people to behave unethically and push them to indulge in criminal activity! This is probably because pollution causes a spike in the level of anxiety.

Researchers in the US studied air pollution and crime data for over 9000 cities for a period of nine years. It was discovered that the cities with higher air pollution levels also had higher crime levels.

One immediate solution that organisations can look at is, air purifiers. These are a good investment today, especially in Delhi. Air purifiers with HEPA filters help suck irritants that cause various symptoms, and bring down the occurrence of respiratory diseases. They improve the indoor air quality to a significant extent, which helps improve productivity.

Many offices install dehumidifiers too, especially in the basements and damp areas to check the growth of mould. Companies, such as WPP and Pricewaterhouse Coopers have installed air filtering systems in their offices in China, to ensure that their valuable employees do not quit because of poor air quality.

The smog and resultant pollution pushed several companies in Delhi-NCR to allow their employees to work from home or follow flexible timings. Many organisations provide high-quality masks to their field employees to prevent them from breathing in dust and pollutants. They also gift plants to employees on birthdays, and organise plantation drives to ensure greenery around them. But these are all short-term measures.

No air filter can completely get rid of pollutants. Also, the truth remains that while it is possible to install air filters inside offices, the employees still have to get to work from their homes. And there is no escaping the pollution on the way. There is filthy air and deadly particulate matter everywhere, and it affects each and every employee.Only national-level policies can work now.

Not everyone can afford to relocate. It is not practical for people to hunt for new jobs in cities, in search of better air to breathe. The least organisations can do is make their employees aware of the seriousness of the situation and push them to do their bit.

In the long run, businesses will have to encourage their employees to take public transport. According to Census data, members of India’s formal workforce travel about 140 million kilometres by four-wheelers and two-wheelers. Even if about 10 to 20 per cent of them begin using public transport, air pollution levels will come down significantly.

This will only benefit the organisations themselves in the long run, because healthier employees means a more engaged and productive workforce.


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