Extreme Temperatures Burn Up Workforce Productivity

Sometimes, drive and a sense of responsibility aren’t all you need to survive a day at work.

Australians can certainly attest to that this week, with an intensive heatwave sweeping over the nation’s eastern and southern states, causing temperatures to swell around the 40C (100F) mark. Shirts are damp, colleagues cranky from lack of sleep, and everyone’s left wishing that their desks were just that little bit closer to the air conditioner or fan.

The real issues, however, are those that span beyond basic comforts. Studies show that heatwaves account for an estimated $7.92 billion loss to Australia’s economy every year, with 7% of people choosing to skip work when faced with oppressive temperatures, and 70% of workers admitting that high temperatures resulted in less productive days.

They’re statistics that are sure to fluster most employers, and that’s a problem. In countries like Australia, taking a day off over the weather is something looked on negatively, as if the individual was displaying an extreme lack of regard for their duty.

That leads to workers forcing themselves into going to work. The alarming result? An average worker will spend 10 days in the office under the influence of severe heat stress. (paywall.)

It’s not just extreme temperatures that have an impact either. Optimal temperature lies between 21C and 25C, with every degree more resulting in a 2% decrease in performance. The study did not extend beyond temperatures of 32C, but if the same trend persisted, a 40C day would see workers operating at 70% productivity.

Biology is to blame. When it’s hot, our bodies must burn glucose to maintain our internal temperature. Our brains need glucose too, but research finds that the rest of the body takes precedence.

In this state, we find it harder to complete complex mental tasks, and instead search for simpler solutions that often prove to be the wrong ones.

Cold temperatures are as problematic. Just 1C lower than the optimal temperature, and workers were found to commit 44% more errors. Though the cold actually makes us more alert we, ironically, are often more distracted as a result.

It all sounds overwhelming, but don’t despair. There are a few simple solutions to making the most out of a sweltering situation:

  • Change up work hours/locations where possible. Working in areas where you can directly control the temperature makes a big difference. Everyone’s optimal temperature is different, so allowing employees to stay home and work when they feel most productive will keep everyone happy. Such flexibility often leads to greater trust in employers overall.
  • Be flexible with the schedule. Encourage employees to take proper breaks, rehydrate, and refocus.
  • Prepare. If you work in a location that is prone to extreme weather, prepare for it! Even a few oscillating fans can make a noticeable difference. The price is negligible when you consider what else is at stake.

In the years to come, extreme temperatures are only set to intensify. For the sake of our work, and those who work with us, now is the time to put strategies in place for how we will deal with them in the future.

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