Rising temperatures at work: A link between employer adaptability and productivity

With the British weather becoming more changeable than ever and temperatures varying massively, questions are raised around whether businesses are doing everything within their power to ensure employees are comfortable in the workplace during periods of extreme temperature change, and the potential impacts that doing so could have on maintaining employee productivity.

Guidelines published by ACAS indicate that although there are potential benefits to employers adapting working environments in times of weather change, the law on the matter is not entirely clear. Minimum temperatures are set at a lower legal temperature of at least 16 degrees centigrade, unless work requires a considerable physical effort, when it should be at least 13 degrees.

Conversely, legally, there is no legislation that highlights a maximum temperature in the workplace, however employers are required to ensure that temperatures do not have a detrimental impact on an employees’ health. Employers are required to take reasonable action to achieve a comfortable temperature, but this is open to interpretation and not set in stone by legislation.

Many employers make temporary changes to their dress code during periods of extreme changes in temperature, with relaxation of company policy being made to accommodate hot and cold spells. This is not always realistic or appropriate for practical reasons, such as perceptions of ‘suited and booted’ professionalism surrounding some areas of employment, and expectations to be dressed in a certain way. The question, however, isn’t only what adjusting can do for the employee, but whether businesses are in fact causing themselves operational problems by demonstrating limited adaptability.

Looking after employees in this weather isn’t just an exercise in gathering brownie points with a sweltered workforce. A 2009 article in ‘Global Health Action’ highlights the increasing need for employers’ consideration of the impacts of Global warming on changing temperatures, which in turn impacts directly on the employees within their organisations and levels of productivity. The article highlights the relationship between heat exposure and reduced productivity as being recognised as far back as 1974, but little additional research has been conducted into the ‘slowing down’ defence mechanism during periods of extreme temperature change. It goes to show that there is an operational advantage in looking after the workforce during these times.

The benefits of attempts to reduce the impacts of extreme heat and health and work capacity such as ‘siesta time’ were highlighted in the article, indicating a positive link between mid-shift extended breaks and the avoidance of serious health impacts generally associated with working in extreme heat.

The real question needs to be asked of our changing climate, with warmer and more changeable summers increasing the need for employers to make adaptations to the working environment, such as air conditioning, increased ventilation or changes to the structure of the working day during the summer months as demonstrated in other European countries. It would appear that the impacts of temperature on the human elements of business continue to be a forgotten factor in discussions around climate change.

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