Health in a heatwave — keeping cool at work and at home

As the mercury rises in the sweltering heat of summer, so too can office tensions and discomfort. Workers warring about the temperature of the air conditioning (AC) and the impracticality of office workwear are age-old water cooler topics. While those debates may be on hold for many this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic changing where we work, summer in our new working environments may be even more difficult than normal.

The challenge of summer is not just that heat is uncomfortable. Heatwaves have been shown to negatively impact physical and mental health and hamper cognitive ability, disrupting the flow of functioning, happy and productive working environments.

To help you and your colleagues survive the summer, we have put together a simple guide to keeping cool and protecting health and wellbeing in a heatwave – whether at home or back in the office.

Studies have discovered that temperatures above 23-24 °C can impede our cognitive performance —  a slowing of our reaction times that can create a sense of ‘brain fog’.

It is getting hot in here
With global temperatures rising, future climate predictions suggest that extreme heat will become the norm for many areas of the globe. While many work environments benefit from air conditioning, those who work outside, or in offices, factories, or shops that are not designed to deal with high temperatures, know all too well the challenges of working during a heatwave. With more of us working from home than ever before, this summer will see increased variations in working conditions, with workers bearing the brunt of the cost of cooling their homes. Even if your destination is a cool, air-conditioned office, you may still have the misery of a daily commute which involves waiting in the oppressive heat of an airless subway station, or on packed buses.

How heat affects the body and the brain
Exposure to excessive temperatures can put the body under physiological stress, the most extreme outcome being heat stroke, which can tragically be fatal. However, even mild increases in ambient temperature can affect our physiology. Studies have discovered that temperatures above 23-24 °C can impede our cognitive performance — a slowing of our reaction times that can create a sense of ‘brain fog’.

Summer weather also presents greater risks for those with asthma and respiratory illnesses from exposure to elevated levels of air pollution. While for allergy sufferers, the warm spring and summer weather brings increased misery from nose, eye, and throat irritability caused by rising pollen levels.

Working through a heatwave
Globally, there are few legal regulations about the upper-temperature limits for working environments. Instead, most government advice addresses the need for employers to ensure the health, safety, and wellbeing of their staff. Managing this during the COVID-19 will prove to be a challenge in unmonitored home environments. In hot weather, businesses are being encouraged to offer their employees more flexibility; from the hours they work to the clothes they wear.

Enabling people to stagger their working hours or work from home reduces overcrowding on public transport and in workplaces. Even relaxing times for breaks can avoid workers having to step out between 12-3 when the sun is at its strongest.

Top tips for keeping cool whilst working

Beat the rush for a fan
With supply chains hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, do not wait until it starts to get really hot to invest in a good electric desk fan. From ones with all the bells and whistles to budget buys, there is a fan to suit every budget.

The fridge-freezer is your friend
If your workplace does not have air conditioning or you are working from home, utilise the fridge-freezer. As well as supplying refreshing chilled drinks and icy treats, you can place a wet flannel into your freezer to create a cooling compress, chill a spray bottle of water to make an invigorating facial spritz or add ice cold water to a hot water bottle to cool down your skin.

Keep windows shut
While it might be tempting to throw open the windows and let the air blow through the office, if the room you are in is cooler than the outside air temperature, keep the windows shut to avoid letting hot air in.

Opt for natural, lightweight fabrics
Formal workwear and a heatwave can be a miserable combination and what is suitable for the weather is not always appropriate for work. However, this is where working from home this summer may have its advantages. Opt for a work wardrobe with garments made from cotton, linen, rayon, silk or jersey — these fabrics will wick away moisture and help to keep you cool.

Avoid caffeine
Despite being a staple of many productive workplaces, caffeinated drinks have a diuretic effect on the body, meaning you expel more water from your body than normal. Given the importance of keeping hydrated in a heatwave, switching to cool, refreshing water and drinking regularly is the best way to avoid dehydration.

Eat your way to cool
Chilli might seem like an odd choice in the heat, but according to research eating spicy food can trick your body into thinking you are overheating, causing the body to sweat and cool down. While the active ingredients of turmeric promote good circulation, helping to speed up your blood flow and cool your body down. However, heavy, protein-rich meals are harder to digest, increasing metabolic heat, so avoid a meat feast in favour of light, cool or raw lunches.

Switch to LED bulbs
Not only will switching to energy-efficient bulbs help save money, but it will also reduce the amount of heat expelled by office lights, in particular hot desk lamps. If you are working from home this summer and footing the cost of your utility bills it is a smart and cooling investment to make.

Cool your pulse points
Pulse points are areas of the body where blood flows closest to the surface of the skin. By running your wrists under a cold tap or putting a cold flannel to your neck you can potentially lower the temperature of your blood and cool your body more quickly.

With hotter summers here to stay, soaring temperatures are increasingly an agitator to the normal rhythm of life. However, being prepared for the weather on a personal level with the right clothes, water intake, and diet can make surviving the heat at work that little bit easier. Businesses that also prepare for adaptations to summer working with a more flexible approach, can also seek to reap the rewards of continued productivity and greater employee wellbeing, whatever the weather.

Do not just meet regulations, exceed them. Unlock the return on health and wellbeing by speaking with an Aon advisor.

To hear the stories of organisations who are growing their workforce resilience, and discover the data demonstrating how workforce resilience is driving a new generation of workplaces, download the Rising Resilient report today.

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