China’s Toughest Human Resource Issue in 2013 – Air Quality

Some rights reserved by Bohan Shen_沈伯韩
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by Bohan Shen沈伯韩

I am an expat working and living in China for the past 2 years.  It has been a tremendous experience for me and family.  It is an experience of a lifetime learning and adapting to a new culture.  I have the privilege of blending my work and life in this country.

As a HR professional, dealing with the “war for talent,” engagement, talent development and retention are on-going topics for me and other HR confront while doing business in China.

However, at the end of the first two years, there is one thing that I cannot overlook – China’s deteriorating air and other environmental problems.  It is a constant and daily reminder of physiological and psychological impact.  I monitor the air quality index on my mobile phone each morning as I wake up.  Wearing face masks is as common as I wear my socks and shoes to go out each day.  I get on busy subway train and face the pushing and shoving as ordinary citizens do each day.

This has caused me to rethink what sustainable life means for its people working in big (and small, for that matter) cities in China.  This should be, if not already, a human resource topic that needs to be addressed now.

Deteriorating Air Environment

Since the US embassy started to publish an AQI (Air Quality Index) from its website and likewise, China has started to publish its own data.  There is greater awareness and transparency for better environmental and air quality.

Fewer expats and foreign special talent are willing to come to China.  We saw earlier this year that a number of “old China hands” were leaving China, in part due to the degrading air quality environment.  Others were declining new assignments to come to China.  This is especially true of expats with families and small children.

Middle and upper management skills continue to be scarce in China.  Companies continue to rely on expats for knowledge and skills transfer.  Thus, it is taking companies longer to find internal candidates willing to take on China assignments.  There may be more cost for companies and “hazard pay” and additional home leaves may be needed for expat assignments.

Chinese employees are feeling the impact of high air-pollution levels as well.  I have been hearing more employees asking about internal transfers to the US.  In part, they are concerned about the deteriorating air quality on their young children.  High costs of housing and grueling education for their children are other reasons.

Apple and Toyota are just two among a growing number of companies who are resorting to providing face masks to employees.  Companies are installing air purifying systems in offices and have the potential of making this as a new aspect of employee benefit.

Social Environmental Stress

Chinese HR leaders see the impact of other social environment impacting employee morale and engagement.  In addition to normal work stress, employees come to work at a higher stress levels.  South China Morning Post cited a Regus survey on employee workplace stress and found that Mainland China saw the biggest number of stressed workers with 75 per cent of the 355 respondents polled reporting a rise in stress levels from 18 months ago – 25 per cent higher than the global average.

Sources of stress include job-related career development, time management and constant change in organizational direction.

Daily life of commuting to and from work is another source of stress.  Watch is video of people pushing and shoving of over-crowded buses and subways.  Employees go through this twice per day, going to working and returning home.

In this video, Tencent News depicts various sources of anxiety and stress felt by young Chinese professionals.

Impact on Business

Businesses say it is tough to curtail air pollution while trying to maintain China’s economic growth target.  However, when air quality is in the stratosphere, planes can’t fly, government is halting vehicles on the roads and factories faces shut down.  The city of Harbin, a city of 11 million people, came to a grinding halt in October.  Shanghai, China’s financial center, also came to to a hitting record high on its pollution index.  The government ordered school shutdowns, limited automobile traffic and its airports were closed.  There is direct impact to businesses and China future economic growth if air quality issues persists.

Topics for Human Resources

There doesn’t appear to be any social cushion to help people manage and cope.  People can’t run away from the air.  With China’s rapid rise economically, this is causing strain on people trying to catch up with “The Jones,” as the saying goes.

These employee angst are seeping into the workplace and has an impact on employee engagement, mental health and other effects.  It isn’t too much of a stretch to think that environmental issues will take a toll on employees and their focus at work.  An increase in employees going to hospitals to treat smog related illnesses disrupts productivity at work and see increase costs for medical treatment and potential, see increase costs on medical insurance premiums.

Is giving out N95 face masks to employees enough?  Is there more that we can do?  Please provide your ideas below.


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