A hot, sweaty working environment is the stuff of nightmares for many UK employees. Not only can it make us feel uncomfortable, but it can also affect our ability to concentrate. This affects productivity, of course, which is reported to drop to 85 per cent when workplace temperature reaches 33°C (91.4°F).
But, adjusting the office air con to reduce ambient heat doesn’t offer a simple solution, because too low a temperature can also create malcontent in the ranks. And there could be a split along gender lines.
As reported by human factors engineer and industrial designer, Chris Adams, writing for ThoughtCo.com: “According to a 2015 study, women’s different body chemistry must be considered when setting the office thermostat, especially in summer when air conditioners run all day long. Women have lower metabolic rates than men and tend to have more body fat. This means women tend to be more susceptible to cold than men.”
Adams says someone’s body mass index affects how they’re affected by ambient temperature (although clothes are also a factor). “Those who weigh more will feel warm more quickly, while those with lower-than-average BMI usually get cold easier,” he explains. Those aged above 55, he adds, are also more likely to feel cold.
Humidity is also key, because people are less able to cool themselves by sweating when the air is too humid, which can make them feel tired. Low humidity can make the air feel colder and “cause skin, throat and nasal passages to feel dry and uncomfortable”, Adams warns. A relative humidity level of 40 per cent is optimal for year-round comfort, he advises.
The law does notstipulate a minimum or maximum temperature for UK workplaces. But as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) website explains, indoor workplace temperatures “are covered by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992, which place a legal obligation on employers to provide a ‘reasonable’ temperature in the workplace”. ‘Reasonable’, it says, depends on “work activity and the environmental conditions of the workplace”.
According to the HSE: “A meaningful [maximum] figure cannot be given due to the high temperatures found in, for example, glass works or foundries.” But it advises employers to “make a suitable assessment of the risks to the health and safety of their employees, and take action where necessary and reasonably practicable”. Moreover: “Employers should consult with employees or their representatives to establish sensible means to cope with high temperatures”.
What about dress code?
Relaxing staff dress codes can also help employees to cope with warmer summer temperatures. As explained by Acas (which helps to resolve workplace disputes): “While employers are under no obligation to relax their dress code during hot weather, some may allow workers to wear more casual clothes or [have] ‘dress down’ days. This does not necessarily mean that shorts and flip flops are appropriate, rather employers may relax the rules in regards to wearing ties or suits.”
Drinking water should be made available and all staff members should be encouraged to drink plenty of it. But, what about ice creams? As Guardian writer, Hilary Osborne, explains wryly, there is no legal obligation for employers to “treat their staff to a Solero in any circumstances”, but “a well-timed round of lollies can engender goodwill that lasts much longer than the typical British summer”.