Majority of American and Canadian Workers Blame Their Workplace for Respiratory Illnesses

With cold and flu season underway, Fellowes conducted a survey of 1,085 U.S. and Canadian office workers and found 55% of respondents attribute a respiratory virus they’ve contracted over the last year to their workplace, making the office the top culprit for the spread of viruses. Survey respondents ranked work ahead of public buildings, their children and public transportation as sources of colds, flu and COVID-19 variants.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) expects this year will be similar to last year in terms of the total number of hospitalizations from COVID-19, RSV, and flu. As with last year, the total number of hospitalizations this year is expected to be higher than what we as a nation experienced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cold and flu season overlaps with the latest push by American businesses for employees to return to offices. On Sept. 13, American office occupancy surpassed 50% of pre-pandemic levels for the first time since July, according to a tracking report from Kastle Systems.

And 90% of companies said they plan to be back in offices by the end of 2024, according to a report from Resume Builder.

With the trend toward more people in offices, the stakes are higher, as there are more opportunities for airborne viruses to spread, leading to absenteeism and decreases in employee well-being.

On International Day of Clean Air, Fellowes released data that found only 29% of respondents from this same survey characterized the indoor air quality (IAQ) in their workplace as “very clean.” The survey results also indicated that respondents now have high expectations of their workplace IAQ, as 91% said clean indoor air should be a fundamental right for all workers, and 79% placed importance on an employer’s responsibility to transparently share information about workplace IAQ with employees.

The majority of survey respondents also reported being at least somewhat concerned about the following effects of poor IAQ on their health and well-being when at work:

Headaches – 68% of respondents
Viruses other than COVID-19 – 67%
Fatigue – 67%
Allergy symptoms – 65%
COVID-19 and variants – 65%

CDC and ASHRAE Agree — Air Purifiers Play a Key Role in Addressing Employees’ IAQ Concerns

As trends and data show that more people are and will be in offices moving forward, the potential for contaminated air increases.

Workers more deeply understand the connection between workplace IAQ and their health, and leading organizations have updated their guidance to equip employers with the knowledge they need to protect their employees. The CDC and trade association ASHRAE are aligned in recommending a combination of clean air delivery rate and filtration levels equivalent to a minimum of five air changes per hour (eACH) and higher depending upon the space. Air purification with HEPA filters can effectively “plus up” an HVAC system that uses MERV-13 filters to achieve or surpass the minimum standard of five eACH.

Air purification systems, such as Fellowes’ new Array air quality management system, help to improve a space’s air quality while also providing visual proof to employees that their workplace is focused on well-being. Array Viewpoint’s community dashboard provides real-time insights into the quality of their air through data visualization, giving room occupants peace of mind that the air they breathe is being cleaned during their time in a particular space.

What Employers Can Do

This data suggests employers should do the following:

1. Evaluate the current state of their IAQ. Contact Fellowes for a complimentary IAQ assessment or ask to speak to an expert.
2. Ask employees about their IAQ concerns, which will give you localized feedback beyond the insights found in the Fellowes survey.
3. Invest in an indoor air quality management system to achieve or surpass CDC and ASHRAE standards for clean air delivery rate and filtration. The combination of air purification and an HVAC system that uses MERV-13 filters is the best tandem for improved IAQ. Consider the right combination of unit types for all of your spaces. Think beyond just purification, consider disinfection units that can work alongside other purification units to help kill viruses and even further reduce the amount of contaminants being spread during cold and flu season.
4. Seek a system that has Sense and React capabilities to increase efficiency and reduce energy consumption, to proactively create healthy workspaces as occupancy changes throughout a day or week, especially with hybrid arrangements now the norm for many offices,
5. After establishing or improving an IAQ management program for your building, be transparent with workers and other occupants. Consider options like Fellowes Array, and its Viewpoint Community Dashboard, to allow occupants of a room to see the quality of the air improve in real time.

As workers are called back to the office in higher numbers this fall, our results suggest that they will be apprehensive about going back to workplaces that lack transparency into IAQ management plans.
American and Canadian workers understand the relationship between the quality of the air at their jobs and the potential to become ill from viruses and contaminants found in that air. They expect their employers to do something about it. With a recent spike in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, plus the cold and flu season underway, there’s an urgent need for all employers to take appropriate measures to protect employee health this fall and winter while proving that what they’re doing is working.

About Fellowes and the Survey

Fellowes, a leader in localized indoor air purification for the last 15 years, manufactures purifiers that contain H13 True HEPA filters, which can remove 99.95% of viruses, bacteria, pollutants, allergens and VOC particles as small as 0.1 microns that lead to poor IAQ and the associated health risks.

Fellowes fielded a survey Aug. 25-29, 2023, about indoor air quality topics via SurveyMonkey Audience to 1,085 U.S. (585) and Canadian (500) adults who work at least one full day per week indoors at their employer’s location. The survey had a margin of error of +/- 3% at the 95% confidence level.