Air Quality and Health in the Workplace: Key Insights and Hybrid Worker Perspectives
There’s no doubt the events of recent years have transformed the ways we live and work. Hybrid working appears to be here to stay, while other...
Air Quality and Health in the Workplace
Key Insights and Hybrid Worker Perspectives
Hybrid workers want action on indoor air quality in workspaces
There’s no doubt the events of recent years have transformed the ways we live and work. Hybrid working appears to be here to stay, while other workplace changes, including an emphasis on sustainability and new concerns about energy efficiency, have created new challenges for facility managers.
One of the most enduring legacies of the pandemic has been higher levels of awareness about our health at work—including more attention to indoor air quality. Lockdowns revealed to everyone just how much time we spend inside (roughly 90% of our lives), while concern about viral transmission risk has inevitably grown.
As a result, new regulations and ESG reporting frameworks in many countries are highlighting indoor air quality in building design and management. And together with the cost benefits of enhanced productivity due to better building health, that makes improving air quality in the workplace an urgent priority for facility managers.
To understand what role indoor air quality plays in our new world of work, Infogrid took a deep dive into the perspectives and concerns of hybrid workers. We commissioned new research surveying 4,000 workers in the US and the UK who spend at least one day a week in the workplace, to assess their perspectives on what makes a healthy, productive, and sustainable work environment.
What did we find out? Our research suggests that employees are both knowledgeable and concerned about the impact of poor air quality in the workplace—and they think more should be done to improve it. Employers and facility managers must make it a top priority.
Three key insights emerge from the research:
Employees are concerned about the health impacts of the air we breathe indoors. Many are still worried about COVID-19 and other airborne viruses, but that’s not their only concern—which suggests air quality will be a priority long into the future.
Awareness of the impact of carbon dioxide (CO₂) on productivity is high. The hybrid workforce is knowledgeable about the particular risks of CO₂, and many are concerned that CO₂ levels are too high. There’s clearly a role for CO₂ monitoring to play in building trust among staff about air quality in the workplace.
Most employees want their organisations to do more. Many believe clean air should be formalised into company policy—underscoring a desire for a more intentional approach to indoor air quality.
With health now a key workplace concern, as well as a critical component of a holistic ESG strategy, pressure is coming from more than just governments for businesses to improve workplace conditions. Hybrid working employees too want their employers and building managers to act on air quality—and fast.
Employees are concerned about the impact of workplace air quality on their health
And younger workers are most concerned
Nearly three years since the beginning of the pandemic, indoor air quality is a concern that’s here to stay. Infogrid’s research shows that the majority of employees in the US and the UK are still worried about poor air quality. The numbers are unambiguous.
Of those concerned in the US, over a third (36%) said they’re very concerned. Just 8% of respondents said they’re not at all concerned.
Respondents in the UK were less concerned overall, yet over half (53%) still said they’re concerned about the impact of low air quality and 17% are very concerned. Just 15% of UK respondents are not at all concerned about poor air quality.
More specifically, a still significant minority of respondents—29% in the US and 21% in the UK—said they’re worried about catching COVID-19 and other illnesses due to poor ventilation and low quality air.
Interestingly, in both the US and the UK, younger employees are more likely to express concern than older employees.
In the US, 85% of respondents aged 18 to 34 were either fairly or very concerned, while two thirds (66%) were concerned in the UK—both well above the average compared to respondents across all ages.
These findings suggest that significant concerns around air quality and workplace health will persist long into the future.
Employees are aware of the impact of CO₂ on productivity
Many are concerned that workplace CO₂ levels are too high
Perhaps one of the most surprising trends that emerged from the survey is that employees are very aware of the impact of carbon dioxide (CO₂) on workplace performance. To gain trust among employees that they’re taking IAQ seriously, organisations may find CO₂ monitoring in the workplace to be a particularly effective strategy.
Poor air quality is a known cause of sick building syndrome, the condition where people experience certain symptoms—such as headaches, dizziness, or poor concentration—when in a particular building. Studies have regularly shown that the presence of high levels of CO₂ correlates with symptoms of sick building syndrome and lowered productivity.
What’s more, increases in productivity due to improved air quality have been shown to have substantial cost benefits for businesses.
In one well-known study, improved ventilation and air quality was found to lead to productivity gains worth $6,500 per employee per year.
It boosts cognitive performance and reduces sick days too.
In our own research we found that, before taking the survey, the vast majority of employees already knew that high levels of CO₂ can have a negative impact on their productivity.
8 in 10 US respondents (77%) said they were aware of the impact of CO₂ levels on productivity (and 34% said they were very aware), while 6 in 10 UK employees (61%) were aware and 18% very aware.
However, trends are clearly visible when the results are broken down by age and sector. Young people stood out once more, as the age group with the highest level of awareness (87% were aware of the health impacts of CO₂ in the US and 70% in the UK).
Meanwhile, in the US, teachers were the workers with the lowest awareness of the impacts of CO₂—posing a possible challenge to government plans to improve air quality in schools.
Finally, the research reveals that high CO₂ levels are not just an abstract worry. 22% of Americans surveyed believe that CO₂ levels in the workplace are already too high—suggesting for many that an urgent solution is needed.
Employees want their organisations to do more
Many think clean air should become company policy
What do hybrid workers think of the ways their employers manage workplace air quality?
Significantly, they think that there’s a lot of room for organisations to do more.
In the US, of those who are concerned about poor air quality at work, the sentiment around how well companies are tackling air quality is split.
While four in 10 hybrid workers (44%) say that their company is doing enough to improve air quality, a comparable and alarming number (43%) say employers aren’t doing enough.
8% report that their company isn’t doing anything at all.
In the UK, over a third (37%) of those concerned about the impacts of air quality believe that their employers are doing enough. Again, a similar number (35%) say it isn’t enough, while 12% say they aren’t doing anything at all. In both countries, it’s younger people who feel most strongly that their companies aren’t doing enough, with just under half of those under 35 (48% in the UK and 49% in the US) stating that their companies could do more.
There are some potentially uncomfortable findings for building managers too:
Around 1 in 5 hybrid workers in the US (22%) and the UK (17%) don’t believe facility managers have adequately considered air quality in the design of the workplace.
More specifically, 20% in the US and 17% in the UK simply don’t believe that ventilation systems are fit for purpose. The results show a possible lack of trust among employees when it comes to feeling confident that their employers and those responsible for facilities management are doing enough to secure their health.
So what do employees want?
Something that emerged very clearly was a desire to see clean air turned into company policy. 28% of respondents in the US and 25% in the UK said that they support the idea.
Landlords and building managers must act on indoor air quality
Commanding the attention of governments across the world since the pandemic, and increasingly considered a key factor in ESG performance for real estate, indoor air quality is a topic that will be on the agenda for years to come.
However, from the perspective of hybrid workers, there’s still lots to be done by employers and building managers to improve air quality in the workplace.
There are three specific takeaways that emerge from our research:
The majority of the workforce is concerned about the impact that air quality is having on their health. This is no longer just about COVID-19, but about wellbeing and productivity in general—suggesting that it’s a concern that’s not going away.
Employees aren’t convinced that building managers, landlords, and employers are doing enough to improve indoor air quality. Many fear ventilation systems just aren’t fit for purpose. It’s the younger generation—the workers of the future—who are least convinced.
A large proportion of employees want air quality to be a priority in the workplace, and a third of respondents believe it’s vitally important to create a healthy workplace. Given widespread awareness among employees, CO₂ monitoring may be the most trusted way to prove efforts to boost IAQ.
Ultimately, the concern about air quality is likely here to stay. Employers, landlords, and building managers must take it seriously, for the benefit of their own business, as well as their staff.
The research was conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Infogrid and Nelson Bostock. Surveys were distributed on 5-12 September 2022, among 2,000 respondents in the US and the UK respectively.
Only those employees who met the following criteria were surveyed in each country: full and part-time employees who work in an office, healthcare environment, education environment or retail environment who work from their workplace at least 1 day a week.