Julie Tucker
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Summer office: How to keep your cool

Concentrating on the job in hand can be the biggest challenge for many indoor workers during a heatwave. When it’s sunny outside, it’s too easy to let your mind wander off to a different place.

The impact of a hot summer on office workers can be both physical and mental. While employees can suffer from the physical effects of heat stress, continually feeling too hot can also leave us unable to think straight and short-tempered with colleagues.

Physical effects of working in heat

The Health and Safety Executive provides guidelines on how UK businesses should offer a safe and comfortable environment, whatever the weather.

Employees can be at risk of heat stress in the workplace at any time of year in certain industries, such as bakeries and foundries. Companies in these sectors are familiar with the risks of heat-related health conditions and take the appropriate action. However, in sectors where extreme heat isn’t an occupational hazard, it can come as a shock when the temperature suddenly rises for a summer heatwave.

Heat stress can occur when the body starts failing to control its internal temperature. Air temperature, humidity, your work rate and clothing can contribute to heat stress. If the temperature rises when you’re wearing restrictive clothing and working quickly and energetically, your core body temperature can increase. The body reacts by producing more sweat to try and cool you down, but this can cause dehydration.

In extreme conditions, the heart rate can also increase, putting strain on your body. Early symptoms can include being unable to concentrate, heat rash and muscle cramps. If the condition is not treated, a severe thirst can develop, followed by heat exhaustion, dizziness, nausea, headache, fainting, convulsions, confusion and a lack of consciousness. The condition can be fatal if not treated in time.

Mental effects of working in heat

As well as the mental symptoms associated with heat stroke, such as feeling confused, a high temperature can cause other issues. Research has revealed our ability to solve cognitive tasks is compromised by extreme heat.

Staff working for long periods in an office that’s too hot perform 13% less efficiently than their peers in a cooler room when it comes to even simple tasks, including having a slower reaction time. When we realise that we’re not performing at our best, frustration sets in. We can become angry and even aggressive during heatwaves, due to our own feelings of frustration and animosity towards those around us.

Scientists say these spikes in mood are caused by complex internal factors. One of these is the way working in heat can impair the ability of serotonin (a chemical in the brain affecting our moods) to keep aggression in check.

How to keep your cool in hot weather

Keeping healthy and focused in the office during the warmer summer months is not only crucial for our wellbeing: as well as the health risks of a heatwave, it follows that productivity will also drop.

A heat illness prevention programme can be established to advise staff on safe working practices and emergency procedures in a heatwave. Although there isn’t a law specifying when it’s too hot to work, it can be useful to set your own temperature limits, so workers don’t spend too long in extreme heat. Provide education and training to ensure workers are aware of the risks associated with heat stress and recognise the symptoms.

Whether you have air conditioning or not, increase the air circulation by using fans to keep the temperature cooler. Keep the blinds closed, rather than having bright sunlight flooding in. Identify if some workers are better acclimatised than others to the hot conditions. Those who are struggling should have the opportunity to take time out if they wish.

How can coworking help with flexibility?

Working in a coworking space can be useful, because it enables you to organise your schedule in a more flexible way, rather than having to stick to a rigid 9-5 routine.

When possible, in a heatwave, design work timetables around the weather. The most strenuous work should take place during cooler times of the day, such as first thing in the morning, or late afternoon and early evening.

Prevent dehydration by providing cool water. You should drink water around every 20 minutes to keep hydrated, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid caffeine in favour of still water.

Provide regular rest breaks – as frequently as every hour on the hottest days. Sitting in a room where there are several computers and other electronic equipment can make you hotter. If you’re based in a coworking space, there will be different areas where you can sit for a quiet break when needed.

You may also find it beneficial to escape from the workplace altogether for a long lunch break to come back feeling refreshed. What you do largely depends on where you’re based.

It’s important to enable a good work/life balance, especially in summer, when spending long and gruelling hours at work can make you feel lethargic and even resentful. It’s preferable to work out a sensible schedule that allows for sufficient personal and family time to “recharge your batteries”.

Don’t become a heatwave statistic in the summer office – keeping your cool is the first step towards maintaining a work schedule that won’t leave you suffering.


© Monika Wisniewska / Shutterstock.com

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