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Helping employees cope with air pollution in Beijing

It is now common for mobility managers with international staff in Beijing and elsewhere in northern China to field complaints about air pollution. As part of our location allowance research at ECA we evaluate the issue, looking at causes, levels, frequency, scale and scope of impact. We award the highest possible score to Beijing that our system allows for the air pollution category. Consequently, despite many developments and improvements in other factors relating to the city, we still recommend a location allowance is paid to staff assigned there and the overwhelming majority of our clients follow that advice.

However, a location allowance by itself often will not fully ease assignees’ understandable concerns about health in Chinese pollution hotspots. Knowing more about causes of poor air quality and what you should and should not be doing to assist staff are also useful in terms of managing expectations and keeping morale high.

Understanding the causes

Major pollutants include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, all of which are prevalent in Beijing’s air because of numerous construction projects and the widespread burning of coal, still the primary source of energy in the city. Growing use of cars and frequent gridlock on Beijing’s roads add to the problem. Topography doesn’t help either: spring sandstorms blow pollutants in from central Asia annually, while Beijing’s location in a basin enclosed by mountains to north and west curtails airflow at certain times of year.

Understanding the patterns 

Pollution is high throughout the year, but is subject to peaks and troughs, as shown below.

Chart showing pollution levels in Beijing, 2015

The data shows two important facts to be aware of if you manage staff assigned to Beijing. Firstly, average pollution levels, as measured by PM2.5 levels, are above those considered safe by the World Health Organisation all year round. Secondly, pollution clearly peaks in winter, when coal usage is greatest. While the chart is from 2015, the last full year for which data is available, analysis of latest 2016 figures and those from earlier years confirm the trends. 

What you should do to help staff in affected areas

There are big differences between the protection from particulate matter provided by the latest double-glazing available and older windows and doors, so this needs to be a consideration for assignees in their search for accommodation. Knowing that pollution is subject to seasonal spikes allows mobility managers to prepare other guidance too: air purifiers need to be serviced in time for cold weather in autumn and winter and require regular filter changes; draught excluders and protective face masks should be purchased; a PM2.5 particle monitor is also worth having to check that exclusion defences in the home are effective; and families should expect days when schools are likely to be closed. Purifiers are in high demand all year, but planning ahead should ensure employees are not stuck without them during the first spike in pollution, when these essential items can quickly sell out. 

Furthermore, as air pollution is above safe levels throughout the year, companies need to ensure staff and accompanying family are medically assessed before relocation and have at least annual check-ups during assignments. Many pre-existing health issues (e.g. respiratory illnesses) could worsen, while others could develop, through constant exposure to Beijing’s air. 

ECA’s 2013 survey of approximately 100 companies operating in Beijing showed that the most common responses to air pollution were the provision of air purifiers in the office and home, and face masks for all family members. Our knowledge of practice since suggests these remain the most used solutions, but other policies are frequently in place too, such as flexibility to allow staff to work from home on days when air quality is particularly bad. Such efforts might make life easier for employees in other ways too, because one of the government’s responses to pollution has been to limit the number of days private cars can be driven (cars with odd or even licence plate numbers are banned from roads on alternate days), making it difficult for those with cars to commute.

What you should not do

Among the most common requests from employees during periods of high pollution are for increases to location allowances and additional home leave or short-term repatriation. ECA’s location ratings are reviewed annually and already reflect relevant levels of air pollution. Additional payments to compensate during periods of poorest air quality in Beijing or anywhere else should be resisted and it should be communicated to employees that pollution levels are adequately reflected in their assignment compensation. Additional home leave and temporary repatriation are also problematic. Leaving post when the going gets tough is unlikely to help employees establish bonds with local colleagues who remain in situ. Furthermore, given the fact that air pollution peaks for up to four months (from November to February), managing operations in Beijing remotely for this length of time would be difficult. However, employees may wish for dependent families to leave Beijing during peak pollution and companies need to make decisions beforehand about who should pay associated costs, whether themselves, or the employee courtesy of the location allowance.

Conclusion

Despite great importance being attached to the matter by authorities in China, pollution in Beijing will, unfortunately, continue to impact the management of staff there for some time yet. Knowing why it happens and when it is most pronounced should help mobility managers forewarn staff of the risks and advise on precautions to take. Furthermore, clear communication beforehand about types of assistance employers will provide – and will not provide! – and why, should forestall some of the commonest requests for inappropriate responses. Such actions should prove useful in ensuring assignments are successful, by enabling all stakeholders to work together to minimise the potential impact of air pollution, however bad it gets. 

ECA Location Allowance Calculator 

ECA's Location Ratings are delivered through ECA's Location Allowance Calculator which offers a transparent and detailed system for calculating location allowances for expatriates relocating to a new country. The system recognises that where an employee is coming from as well as going to can affect the level of adaptation required. Users can select region-to-city allowances or city-to-city allowances, so that depending on a company's policy the system reflects the level of detail required.

To find out more about how ECA can help you determine your expatriates’ location allowances, please get in touch!

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