The British are known internationally for their love of talking about the weather. It’s little wonder since our island experiences extremes of heat, cold, wet, dry and everything in between over the course of a year and sometimes during a single day! Over the past few years we have seen even greater extremes than usual and just this summer there have been reports of record-breaking temperature highs all across Europe. Experts are forecasting extreme weather conditions, like this summer’s heatwaves, to become a global ‘norm’, so how will this affect businesses and how can employers plan and prepare for summer heatwaves?
While there are rules around minimum workplace temperatures, there are no such rules regulating maximum temperatures and no regulations regarding how to care for staff during the warm summer months or a heatwave. The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 state only that “during working hours, the temperature in all workplaces inside buildings shall be reasonable”. Of course, the weather is beyond any organisation’s control, but there are plenty of ways businesses can mitigate the impact of high temperatures on their employees.
We all have different preferences when it comes to workplace temperature, but research has shown that gender plays a notable part. A study, published in Nature, found that women feel colder than men and that women generally work better in temperatures of around 24-25°C. The impact of temperature on men at work was far less significant.
Airconditioning Wars can monopolise much of the summer months in offices all over the world. Around 80% of employees complain about the air con and spend 6-8 minutes a day changing the temperature settings. Which isn’t such a surprise when you realise that air conditioning units are set to suit ‘male temperatures’ so, the truth is, in this discussion, both sides are right – it does feel fine and it is too cold.
Luckily, the solution is also pretty simple, a 2004 study found that colder offices resulted in employees making more errors. So turning down the air con and enjoying the summer warmth could be good for productivity, not just the office mood.
If you don’t have air conditioning, don’t worry, there are plenty of ways you can help keep the office comfortable, whatever the temperature. Keep blinds or curtains drawn to keep the sun out, windows and doors open to ensure the area is well ventilated and investing in a few fans will help to keep the air moving and cooling.
A hard days work
Getting the office temperature right is only part of managing a summer scorcher. One poll found that employees extend their lunch breaks by 30% during fair weather, spending an average of 13 minutes more away from their desks than usual to enjoy the sun. The same survey found that men are more likely to take a little extra time away from their desks and also admitted to having a sneaky alcoholic drink at lunchtimes during the Summer. However, whatever the weather, employees don’t have any right to cut their day short without flexible working agreements in place. This could, however, be a great time to consider flexible working options with your staff perhaps at a team meeting in the local park?
What not to wear
The vast majority (over three quarters) of companies expect their staff to maintain a dress code throughout the year, irrespective of temperature. However, employees with a relaxed dress code are more likely to work longer hours. If staff are uncomfortable and hot, they are far less likely to be prepared to put in a few extra minutes to get the job finished. It is worth revisiting dress-code rules to see how they can be adapted for extreme weather conditions. It may well pay off in increased productivity.
Unlike snow days, heat shouldn’t have much impact on an employee’s ability to get into work although train companies do occasionally reduce speed or cancel trains to prevent problems with buckling tracks. The London Underground has been known to get uncomfortably hot during rush hours, up to 42°C in the July 2019 heatwave. In extreme cases the public may be advised to avoid travel, but most of the time it’s simply less appealing to get on an over-crowded train, tube or bus when it’s hot and stuffy especially when they don’t have air conditioning.
All of this can prevent employees arriving in work on time. This must be managed on a case by case basis for every business depending on your own specific circumstances, but it is worth considering a standard organisation-wide response in advance.
Many people struggle to get a good night’s sleep when it’s very warm at night. Employees who have been tossing and turning all night will not be at their best in the workplace. During periods of high temperatures employers should be alert to the potential health risks posed by fatigue, especially if the hot weather continues for several days.
Everyone’s concentration and focus are affected by too little sleep, but fatigue can be fatal in some workplaces. Providing a factsheet on how to beat the heat at night is a simple way to support employees and encourage them to let you know if they’re struggling. Simple tips such as keeping curtains or blinds shut during the day to reduce heat build-up, putting sheets into the freezer and taking a tepid shower before bed, can make a world of difference.
Staying safe in hot weather
Of course it’s not just about time-keeping and productivity, high temperatures can have a negative impact on employee health:
Dehydration – We sweat more in hotter weather so, naturally, we need to drink more. Employers should be ensuring that their staff have adequate access to fresh water and opportunity to drink. Dehydration can negatively impact energy levels and concentration. Discouraging tea and coffee and instead offering cold drinks and high water content snacks like strawberries, cucumber and melon is a great way to help staff stay hydrated whatever the weather.
Overheating – This can be very serious if it develops into heatstroke and uncomfortable at best. Symptoms include tingling skin, headache, weakness and fatigue, nausea, change in heart rate, dizziness, sweating more than usual or not at all. If a member of staff is experiencing any of these symptoms due to the heat the best course of action is to get them to a cooler space, lay them down and make sure they drink plenty of cool fluids. If the symptoms are severe contact a doctor.
Heart problems – In high temperatures our hearts must work harder which can be problematic for people with heart disease or other cardiovascular illnesses. Keeping hydrated and as cool as possible is the key to managing heart conditions in the heat.
Breathing problems – People with long-term lung conditions like asthma, bronchiectasis or COPD can struggle in hot weather. High levels of ozone, caused by sunshine and high pollen counts can cause symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath and coughs.
All of these can make employees feel unwell and fatigued but are luckily easily manageable in most cases by following some basic guidelines, especially keeping cool and well hydrated.
Whatever the weather
It might seem like a little thing, but high temperatures can be very problematic for companies and in extreme cases, fatal. A comprehensive health and wellbeing plan should incorporate a section on how to support employees whatever the weather. For many of us, the weather is a much loved conversation topic, but the forecast is that these extreme conditions will become more commonplace. Businesses need to do more than just talk about the weather, they need to plan and prepare for it, especially if they want to keep their cool.