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Freedom Day has come and gone for the UK, and the ending of restrictions has coincided with a return to “normal”, or more precisely, “normal enough”. After over a year of working from home, employers can finally be confident that a return to offices is viable, driven in large part by the UK’s high vaccination uptake that has enabled health officials to manage COVID-19 infection rates and hospital admissions. As employees return to the office more regularly, HR managers should be paying close attention to new patterns of sickness and seeking to boost employee mental and physical health. It will now be crucial to redefine minimum workplace standards and embrace innovation such as clean air technology. 

New research from the University of Cambridge[1] has found a direct relationship between air pollutant concentrations and COVID-19 mortality and infectivity. The study reveals that fine particular matter, largely produced from fuel consumption, was a major contributor to COVID-19 cases in England. The study highlights that the relationship between air pollution and COVID-19 withstands socioeconomic, demographic, and health variations and concludes that a small increase in air pollution leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 infectivity and mortality rate. Given that COVID-19 lingers in the air for hours after the original source has been removed, indoor environments, such as offices and workplaces, that lack proper ventilation pose a significantly increased risk of transmission. It is for this very reason that the UK Government is considering whether the installation of ventilation systems should be made mandatory.

Leading European indoor Environmental Quality associations issued a statement this month[2] to assert the dangers of indoor air pollution, calling for the poor air quality of indoor environments to be recognised as a health risk. Health experts at the World Health Organization (WHO) have also been advocating for improved ventilation through EN 1822 European Standard filtration, the most effective method in sterilising air. At OKTOair, we are passionate about improving workplace standards. Our HEPA filters far exceed the HEPA efficiency test, EN 1822 European Standard, and have been designed to capture and kill particulate matter and pathogens to 0.007 microns by utilising ground-breaking DFS Technology filtration. By embracing innovations that facilitate the monitoring and controlling of air quality, businesses can significantly improve working conditions and boost employee wellbeing by mitigating risks to harmful toxins in the air and preventing harmful diseases from spreading.

Beyond improving employee health and safety, mounting evidence demonstrates that enhancing indoor air quality in workspaces has major economic implications. Each year, air pollution is estimated to cause six million sick days and has a total cost of £22.6 billion, according to research by the Royal College of Physicians[3]. Their findings show that by enhancing workspace ventilation, employers can safeguard staff and reduce sick leave from other airborne illnesses such as flu, allergies, and sick building syndrome.

Furthermore, by improving the quality of air in workspaces employers will be helping to improve the quality of work and productivity of their employees. Recent studies conducted by Harvard University on workplace productivity[4] show that high-performing, green-certified buildings with improved ventilation resulted in employee performance improving by 8 percent, the equivalent to a £4,600 increase in employee productivity each year. The cost to benefit ratio is clearly heavily favoured towards embracing innovation, as the long-term savings made through mitigating absenteeism and the subsequent productivity boost far outweigh the cost of maintaining effective air quality.

Improvements to air quality go beyond physical health and economic productivity. Mental health has also been shown to drastically improve in direct correlation with better air quality, according to research by the Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology Journal[5]. According to their study, even small increases in our exposure to air pollution can be harmful, resulting in a substantial rise in depression and anxiety. Exposure to air pollution can heighten the risk of other common mental disorders by a staggering 39%. Worryingly, in the UK, almost every urban area has particle pollution levels above WHO guidelines. Employees have faced an extremely challenging year, and it is now imperative that employers go above and beyond to safeguard the mental health of their staff. 

While the UK has reopened and restrictions have been lifted, employees still require strong reassurances that returning to the office is safe. The most effective and pragmatic means for businesses to offer this is to embrace technologies that safeguard their staff. It is imperative to consider every aspect of the working environment and improvements must begin with the air we breathe. Air quality management has been shown through multiple studies to have physical, mental, and economic benefits and its importance has only been heightened in light of COVID-19. The trend is clear: as workers return to the office, clean indoor air will be pivotal in maintaining a healthy, happy, and productive workforce.