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Blog 24 February 2022

Air pollution and talent retention: A Sofia case study

Eve Alcock
A new report from Deloitte, commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, reveals air pollution impacts the productivity, absenteeism and employee retention of highly-skilled workers in Sofia, Bulgaria.
EconomyEuropean Union

A new report from Deloitte published today outlines stark economic impacts of air pollution in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. Impact of Air Pollution on Career Decisions of the Highly-Skilled Workforce in Sofia, which was commissioned by the Clean Air Fund, looks at how dirty air hinders talent retention in the capital. The combination of antiquated polluting heating systems and low winds plus its position in a valley, makes Sofia the most polluted capital city in the European Union, with extremely high levels of particulate matter. Read the report here.

The publication shares the results of a survey of Sofia’s highly-skilled workforce. It reveals that over half (58%) of the respondents attributed dirty air to increased sick days, and over two thirds (68%) said they limit their working hours because of the quality of the air in the city. A fifth of respondents also felt air pollution affects their work productivity.

As many as six in ten (62%) of highly-skilled workers surveyed said they consider air quality as a significant factor when choosing which city to work in. More than a third (37%) of respondents say they would consider moving elsewhere in Bulgaria because of Sofia’s air quality – rising to around half when the respondents had children. An even bigger proportion – around two thirds (66%) of respondents – would consider moving abroad for better air quality.

This is not a new problem for Sofia. In 2019, air pollution cost Sofia’s economy 13.4% of local GDP through reduced labour productivity and absenteeism alone. If left unaddressed, the city could lose up to 15.8 billion euros through economic impact alone by 2024.

When you factor in the health costs of the problem, that cost continues to rise. Research from Air for Health Bulgaria shows that when daily concentrations of particulate matter in Sofia exceed the World Health Organization’s guideline levels, calls to the ambulance service in the city increased by 10% on average, adding to the city’s air-pollution related bills.

The findings of Impact of Air Pollution on Career Decisions of the Highly-Skilled Workforce in Sofia report also demonstrates knock on impacts, for example, showing that “air pollution can increase inequality and create further spatial divergence in urban areas”. In other words, highly-skilled employees who are more mobile, can more easily migrate away from pollution whereas less-skilled or less well paid workers are not only less mobile but they also tend to bear a greater burden of air pollution in most cities.

The example of Sofia may be relevant to employers in other polluted cities because their ability to attract and keep their highly skilled workers is of course crucial to their success.  And unless toxic air is addressed in the cities that are at the centre of thriving – and recovering – economies, this may become a growing issue.

Talent retention is one of several risks that air pollution poses for businesses. As our report with Dalberg on Air Pollution in India and the Impact on Business showed, air pollution can also decrease workforce productivity due to staff absences, reduce consumer footfall, and even speed up the degradation of IT assets and other infrastructure. Read Air Pollution in India and the Impact on Business here.

Business are uniquely positioned to help deliver clean air through reducing their own emissions and supporting clean air solutions. By addressing the problem, they can improve the health, productivity and quality of life of their workforce and also safeguard the lives and livelihoods of customers and of others in the cities in which they operate. This in turn boosts their own business, and the wider economy.