HEALTH

Healthwatch: Air Pollution and Employee Health in Asia

18 September, 2018

Alice Peng
Associate Director, Employee Health and Benefits

"Asia’s growing middle class does not expect to work in environments—workplaces included—that threaten their well-being.”

Typically, when weighing the pros and cons of a job, people consider the salary, the location, and the opportunities for professional growth and personal fulfillment. But here is a new consideration: quality of life. Welcome to working in a world forever altered by climate change, escalating populations and urban sprawl. These global environmental problems are impacting some regions particularly hard, most notably Asia and its megacities.

What Is 6.3 Days a Year Worth to You?

According to a recent Mercer Marsh Benefits research report, “Medical Trends Around the World 2018,” the leading health risk to Asian employees is environmental risks, especially indoor/outdoor air pollution. Respiratory illnesses and related diseases are at disturbing levels across Asia, where medical inflation is around 10% for the entire region.[1] The stakes are high for Asian economies, including China, which is the world’s second-largest economy, employing more than 774.5 million people. Many decades of unbridled growth and lax environmental laws have taken a devastating toll on China and its workforce, especially its urban areas.

Workers in Asian megacities, particularly in northern China, are familiar with the terminology of pollution. Particle matter (PM) count is just another component of the weather, like the percent chance of rain or the air temperature. Residents of megacities know that a PM 2.5 means hazardous pollution levels, and to mitigate activities that involve breathing unhealthy air. Going for a jog or commuting to work by bicycle without wearing a mask can contribute to debilitating health consequences. Companies are, however, taking steps to defend the health of their employees, by providing preventative solutions such as indoor air purifiers, offering educational programs (including smoking cessation), and allowing flex scheduling on days with high PM levels. But more needs to be done.

The Guardian reports that China and India are attributed with half of all premature pollution-related deaths in 2015, which amounts to about 6.5 million deaths every year, according to a WHO study on indoor and outdoor pollution.[2] The destructive consequences of bad air in Asia have become unavoidable workplace issues, with employers and employees finally acknowledging the costs to health and productivity. For some perspective, the German Institute of Global and Area Studies discovered that high-level filtration systems could improve the life expectancy of office staff, in one organization’s China office, by an average of 6.3 days a year. Consider that for a minute: losing about a week of your life every year because you live and work in a city plagued by pollution. High-level filtration system? Yes, please.

Environmental Heroes: Asia’s Growing Middle Class

Something interesting happens when families enter the middle class and become accustomed to a higher quality of life. Instead of fighting for survival and worrying from one day to the next about how to provide for their children, they increasingly engage with the world around them. They purchase and enjoy the nice shoes they’ve always wanted. They buy healthier ingredients and eat healthier foods. They take time to appreciate life and leisure, instead of being constantly overwhelmed by the struggle to simply exist.

For an emerging middle class, quality of life factors—like health and fitness—become a regular expectation. Asia’s growing middle class does not expect to work in environments—workplaces included—that threaten their well-being. These rising expectations are driving an environmental movement across Asia. Take China, for example, where middle-class demands for better conditions are urging the Chinese government to take action. In fact, China revised the Air Pollution Prevention Law in 2014, which defined local governments’ rights and responsibilities in air pollution control. In January 2018, China launched a government initiative to assess and address public health issues created by environmental pollution.[3] These efforts signify a monumental shift in government policy as it officially recognizes the problem, and thereby invites a discussion about the cost of economic expansion as it relates to the health of its citizens and employees.

The Way Forward: Innovating for a Healthy Workforce

Asia, like the rest of the world, has a long way to go in pollution reduction. However, there is no progress unless there is first an acknowledgment of the problem, and secondly, real resources are mobilized and marshalled in the right direction. Asia’s governments, employers, and people are focused on the continued growth of the region’s economies, but these endeavors cannot reach their full potential if pollution and unhealthy conditions undermine the productivity of Asian workforces. To solve these formidable environmental problems, Asia and the international community, must rely on human ingenuity and innovation to clean up the mess we have made and left for our children—the world’s future workforce.

The air pollution problem in Asia may inspire real, meaningful change.[4] Megacities and local governments are working hard to improve conditions and grow beyond the images of smog-plagued urban settings posted on the Internet. This bodes well for the region’s employers, employees, and expats who make a living in these metropolises. And if you need any evidence of Asia’s commitment to improving air pollution levels, check out the “world’s biggest air purifier” that China just built. For residents and employees in Xi'an, China, it just may be a lifesaver.

1 2018 Mercer Marsh Benefits Medical Trend Survey
https://www.mercer.com/our-thinking/health/mercer-marsh-benefits-medical-trends-survey-2018.html

2
How Clean Indoor Air Is Becoming China's Latest Luxury Must-have
Helen Roxburgh - https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/27/china-clean-air-indoor-quality-shanghai-cordis-hongqiao-filters

3
China To Monitor Human Health Impacts Of Pollution For First Time
Li Jing - http://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/01/31/china-monitor-human-health-impacts-pollution-first-time/

4
How a 'toxic Cocktail' Is Posing a Troubling Health Risk in China's Cities
https://e360.yale.edu/features/how-a-toxic-cocktail-is-posing-a-troubling-health-risk-in-chinese-cities

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Kate_Bravery Kate Bravery |26 Mar 2020

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A Way Forward Towards Purposeful Job Titling
Dr._Sebastian Dr. Sebastian Fuchs |26 Mar 2020

Everyone’s job has, in some form or another, a job title. Be it a Brick-layer, Accountant or CEO. The common understanding is that the job title depicts the respective job and its roles and responsibilities. Our work with different clients of different sizes, with different structures, maturity levels, and in different economic and cultural environments, however, suggests that there is much more heterogeneity in job titles than one would suspect. In one organization, for example, an Accountant is called ‘Financial Advisor’ whereas in another organization, s/he is called ‘Finance Officer’. In Mercer’s 2019 Global Total Remuneration Survey, on a sample of 182 organizations based in the United Arab Emirates, as an example, the Mercer Job Library position ‘Accountant–Experienced Professional’ is tagged against more than 180 different job titles. This suggest that more than 99% of organizations included in the data set label this type of job in a unique, idiosyncratic manner. In a similar vein, Mercer’s 2019 data from Australia shows more than 360 different job titles across 313 organizations. A similar report for India from 2019 shows over 520 different job titles across 360 organizations for this type of job. In Brazil, Russia and the UK, the same analyses produced very similar results. This means, to be specific, that similar jobs even in the same organization are often labeled in a heterogeneous, unconcerted way. Problems associated with purposeless job titling   While the Accountant example provides some insight into the actual responsibilities of the role, we often see organizations labelling jobs in less meaningful, purposeless ways. For instance, we find job titles such as ‘Senior Supervisor Financial Accountant’, ‘Business Analyst’, ‘Finance Executive’ or, more recently, creative titles such as ‘Accounting Guru’, ‘Accounting Ninja’ or ‘Accounting Rockstar’ in this area of organizational life. In our view, this creates five key issues: 1.   In markets that are suffering from employee disengagement, the rise of passive job seekers and a growing appeal of self-employment and entrepreneurship[1], a job opening with an inaccurate job title faces two key problems. Firstly, the job applicants may be over or under qualified for the position at hand and, secondly, potentially suitable applicants may not apply as they believe the job is not a good match. 2.   Breaches of the psychological contract between employees and their employer may occur. To be precise, “the psychological contract encompasses the actions employees believe are 1.      expected of them and what response they expect in return from the employer”[1]. To this end, a purposeless job title may provide an inaccurate view on the actual roles and responsibilities to be performed by the new joiner. For instance, a ‘Financial Advisor’ may execute on the classical accounting tasks, such as processing accounts receivable and payable, but the job title, however, indicates that the job holder would spend some time interacting with stakeholders and provide advice on financial matters. The lack of defined possibilities to engage in such activities may constitute a psychological contract breach, leading to cynicism towards the organization, turnover, job dissatisfaction, reduced commitment and an overall decrease in performance. 3.   Another important issue to consider is an employees’ propensity to boost their current job title. This is linked to two mechanisms. Firstly, boosting one’s job title ultimately serves to enhance one’s status and self-identity[1]. Secondly, an enhanced job title is likely to attract attention on the external job market. 4.   Perceptions of fairness may decrease due to inconsistently labelled jobs. For instance, a job may be called ‘Finance Lead’ that is, in terms of roles and responsibilities as well as qualifications required, very similar to a ‘Head of Finance’. For most people, a ‘Head of Finance’ is classified as a higher ranked job despite both jobs being very similar in nature and potentially having the same job grade. This can create perceptions of injustice leading to employee turnover, lower levels of extra-role behavior and greater levels of withdrawal, deviant and retaliatory behaviors[2]. 5.   Purposeless job titles may also be detrimental for internal and external communications. Internally, there might be a certain degree of ambiguity to what the hierarchy level of a an incumbent is and consequently how messages should be phrased. Externally, purposeless job titles may further lead to misunderstandings in terms of authority levels and responsibilities an employee holds. Reasons for purposeless job titling   The reasons for these five issues are manifold. First and foremost, only few organizations seem to have adhered to a coherent, up-to-date and intuitive job titling framework. In fact, in many organizations job titling is either left to the line manager or, in some cases, left to the job incumbent. This, by definition, is likely to create a certain degree of heterogeneity among job titles. In addition to that, even in leading organization, there is often no clear, well-defined organizational process in place to govern this element of organizational life. We advocate, and outline in greater detail below, that there should be a process in place including clear roles and responsibilities in terms of who sets and ultimately approves the titles of jobs. We also see that organizations often seek to develop job titles that adhere to the specific cultural contexts in which they operate. This, as a consequence, also adds to a certain degree of incoherence in job titling. Lastly, the high degree of change to which many organizations across the globe are exposed to, also contributes to incoherent job titles. To be specific, when organizations adopt new structures and amend roles and responsibilities of their jobs, job titling should also be considered. However, for many organizations this is an issue of limited importance of the time of restructuring so this tends to get neglected. As a consequence, especially with numerous rounds of re-structuring, a heterogeneous, incoherent landscape of job titles is likely to emerge. Conducting purposeful job titling   The above-mentioned observations raise the question of how organizations can move forward to actually create purposeful job titles. Meaningful or purposeful job titles usually consists of two key elements. Firstly, purposeful job titling should indicate the actual function and with this associated roles and responsibilities the job incumbent is tasked with. If an employee in Finance is responsible for maintaining the Finance IT systems, then the job title should indicate that this employee looks after IT for Finance, as opposed to more generic IT activities. Secondly, a purposeful job title also indicates the hierarchical level, or, to be more specific, should hold reference to the actual job grade the job has been mapped onto. In our work across the globe, we see a certain degree of inconsistency and incoherence in this respect. Frequently, strict hierarchical levels are used to create job titles, even though the job evaluation may not indicate such job titling. For instance, the responsible job incumbent for managing financials in a country managing set-up of a small to medium sized enterprise owned by a multinational corporation may be called ‘Chief Finance Officer’. This job title indicates a fairly senior position. In reality, however, such a job more closely resembles the activities of a ‘Financial Accountant’ or a ‘Finance Manager’. Such discrepancies between the actual roles and responsibilities of a job and its titling typically become clear when job evaluations are performed. As such, we advocate a certain adherence to job grades when it comes to job titling in order to derive purposeful job titles. In Figure 1, we outline how an approach to purposeful job titling could look like. It indicates the main components of a job title, i.e. (a) what the job’s hierarchical level in the organization is, (b) its function or area of expertise, (c) to what organizational unit the job belongs, and (d) what the actual scope of responsibility of the job is. For instance, a ‘Senior Vice President Finance EMEIA’ uses the elements A, B and D of the framework. Element C, the organizational unit, in this case is not required. For professional jobs, as another example, an ‘Advisor Finance Downstream Abu Dhabi’ would have all elements in her or his job title. This way, the same protocol and nomenclature for different job titles is applied universally across the organization, and thereby meets the requirements of purposeful job titling set out above.                           Figure 1: Mercer’s Purposeful Job Titling Framework In addition to adopting such a framework, organizations should consider who owns and governs job titling. The governing department should make sure that there are employees who have ownership of this process, and that no job requisition and its related activities as well as any internal re-structuring fails to comply with the framework. This way, purposeful job titling gets embedded and institutionalized in the organization. Sources: 1. 2017, ‘The talent delusion: why data, not intuition, is the key to unlocking human potential’, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Piatkus. <a href="#"> 2. 1994, ‘Human resource practices: administrative contract makers’, Denise M. Rousseau and Martin M. Greller, Human Resource Management, 33-3, page 386. <a href="#"> 3. 2005, ‘Understanding psychological contracts at work: a critical evaluation of theory and research, Neil Conway and Rob B. Briner, Oxford University Press.<a href="#"> 4. Ibid. <a href="#"> 5. For an interesting review see: 2019, ‘The five pillars of self-enhancement and self-protection’, in the Oxford handbook of human motivation, Constantine Sedikides and Mark D. Alicke. <a href="#"> 6. For a good overview please refer to: 2001, ‘The role of justice in organizations: a meta-analysis’, Yochi Cohen-Charash and Paul E. Spector, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 86-2.

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