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How to keep cool at work during a heatwave

Workplace temperature is a hotly contested topic at the best of times – but with parts of the UK expecting another heatwave next month, many Brits will be struggling to work in sweltering office or home environments.

With productivity and morale taking a hit, many will be wondering what their rights are when it comes to working in such heat – and whether they have to work at all.

The issue is complicated further with so many of us still working from home. Whilst some offices in the UK do have air conditioning, our homes almost certainly don’t. This can make for a tough working environment.

With that in mind, we spoke to Christine Macdonald, director of HR and management company The Hub Events, for her insights into working in hot office environments, with tips for managers to help teams alleviate the heat, and tips for those who are WFH too.

“Many employees will be struggling with the heat – but the question everyone’s asking ‘is it too hot to work?’ is a complicated one and difficult for HR to answer,” she says. “Whilst there are laws preventing staff from working in conditions that are too cold, the legislation when it comes to hot conditions is less clear – with Regulation 7 of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 simply stating that temperatures inside buildings ‘shall be reasonable.’ It’s likely that a top-figure doesn’t exist because of complications it would cause to certain industries which naturally work indoors in hot conditions – glass factories for example.”

“This does mean however that employees don’t have many rights when it comes to working in hot conditions. With that in mind though, there’s plenty employers can do to help, and some small hacks for employees to take on too:

Office – Christine provides tips for employers asking how to keep employees cool and motivated in the office during the heatwave…

Keep Teams Well Hydrated
“Often workers in the flow will forget to stay hydrated – so encourage teams to drink on the hour. Keep filtered cold water in fridges, and do water runs too – swapping tea runs with water runs can be very helpful. Provide your staff with their own plastic refillable bottles – these are one of those useful little purchases everyone wants but no-one really wants to buy, your team will appreciate the gesture and it’ll help them stay hydrated too!”

Risk Assess the Space
“The HSE has created a thermal comfort checklist and we’d recommend employers ask employees to fill this in. If a worker ticks more than two of the ‘yes’ options, then they could be at risk. In this case, speak to them about ways to help or run a more detailed risk assessment of the entire space.”

Flexibility is Important
“After a year of the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses have had to learn to be flexible. Consider holding off having teams back in the office if you work in the city, saving them the horrors of hot buses and trains and congested roads. If this isn’t possible, make sure your staff have time to acclimatise when they return to the office – put water out, allow them space to cool off.”

Change the Space
“Provide fans to help the flow of air through the office. Windows should be open with Covid-19 restrictions and a fan will help push hot air through them and out. Covid-restrictions mean you won’t be able to alternate people’s desks – but maybe move some away from sun-facing windows. Shade the office where possible without making things too dark.”

Let Staff Dress Down
“Wearing traditional business clothing is unbearable in this heat. If your business does insist, maybe for this week only allow staff to adopt a more casual look. You can still look professional in an open shirt with trousers whilst feeling a lot cooler. Relax your rules a little, at least while the heatwave lasts.

Cold Treats
“Make sure the office freezer is stocked with cool treats – ice lollies and ice cream – and let staff help themselves. Put a cool box in the centre of the office.”

Turn Off Machines
“Extra PCS, printers, photocopies, servers, lights – all of these generate excess heat. Anything you’re not using, turn off – it’ll make a difference.”

WFH – Christine provided tips for those WFH on staying cool in the heatwave…

Change Your Hours
“Speak to your boss about changing your hours. This may not be possible, but managers have learnt to be flexible during the Covid-19 crisis, and working from home does allow for looser working conditions. If you’re really struggling to work during the day, see if you can work earlier – 6am before the sun really gets hot – or later, after 6pm when things start to cool down. Many managers will be flexible, especially if it’s only for a couple of days.”

Keep the Sun Out
“You’d think on a hot day, opening the house would help keep you cool, but the opposite is true. In hotter countries, they block the sun out during the day. Shut curtains and blinds to stop your home turning into a greenhouse. Open the windows first thing throughout the house to get the air out, and then close them and the curtains for the rest of the day.”

Freeze a Hot Water Bottle
“Freeze a hot water bottle overnight, and keep it by your feet during work-hours. That might sound weird, but cooling your feet is one of the quickest ways to bring your entire body-temperature down. Keep a cool flannel against your neck too.”

Go Easy on Yourself
“We all want to stay at our most productive, but try not to beat yourself up if you’re not working at peak performance right now. Putting aside the heat, we’ve all had an extremely stressful year – it helps to step back, take a little breather and get through what you can without causing yourself any extra stress.”

Quit Caffeine, Drink Water
“This might not be the advice you want, but stop drinking so much coffee – it’ll only raise your body temperature. Swap out for cold versions if you need the fix. Aim to drink more water. When you’re getting stuck into work, it can be easy to forget to drink. Set a timer on your phone if you really struggle.”

Rearrange Video Calls and Dress Down
“The benefit of WFH is that you’re not tied to workplace dress codes. Wear as little as you need to stay cool – if possible, rearrange calls for later in the week when the heat isn’t so bad. Remember everyone is in the same boat.”