How to help your staff stay healthy and motivated during the heatwave

By London Doctors Clinic’s clinical director, Dr Daniel Fenton, and HR director, Vicki Field

Finally, we’re in the middle of a long, hot summer like the ones we remember when we were kids. But now, whilst we may have a holiday planned to enjoy some of the sunshine, most of us have to commute and work in an office, which can be far from fun.

It’s a widely reported fact that there’s no legal maximum temperature in the office, although there is some noise in Trade Union and some political circles to amend the law in this regard. So, there’s no automatic right for employees to go home if it’s too hot.

Offices vary; some have excellent air-conditioning which ensures that the working environment is pleasant, whilst others can use the old-fashioned approach of opening windows or lowering blinds.

Before arriving at the office, employees may find the commute to work extremely uncomfortable in the current heat wave, particularly if using public transport. It was reported that temperatures on the London Underground exceeded 40 degrees this week.

Starting the day, hot, flustered and dehydrated as a result of the commute, coupled with a hot office can be really unpleasant, impacting productivity and motivation.

To appreciate how to help your employees, it is important to understand how and why the heat and the sunshine affects us:

  • Dehydration

Perhaps the most obvious symptom caused by the excess heat – we lose a vast amount of fluid through sweating, which leaves us feeling thirsty and fatigued.We will often find ourselves reaching for a sugar-rich soft drink or a cup of strong coffee to perk us and rehydrate. However, highly caffeinated drinks act as a diuretics. This effectively means they will make us frequent the bathroom more often, and actually worsen the dehydration. A glass of wine at a business lunch meeting will do the same.

  • Heat Exhaustion

Prolonged exposure to the heat can precipitated heat exhaustion which may be characterised by: Heavy sweating, rapid breathing, nausea, a faster and weak pulse, light-headedness, feeling fatigue and heat cramps. Heat exhaustion is not life threatening but is certainly a key warning that you need to cool down to prevent progression to heat stroke.

  • Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the end result of overheating. Our internal temperature rises and creates confusion, drowsiness and can lead to seizures.

  • Sunburn

Whilst we worry greatly about avoiding dehydration and sun stroke, we often forget sun burn. The hot red, prickly skin condition created by too much sun exposure can make you extremely uncomfortable and certainly impact on the ability to focus at work.  Lathering on a minimum of SPF 30 sun cream, with a high UVA Rating will help to protect the skin

 So what can we do to help our employees cope with the heat?

On a practical level, ensuring that the office has a comfortable working temperature is a good start. If you don’t have aircon, consider fans or mobile aircon units.

Relaxing dress codes is also an option, although guidance should be provided to ensure that dress remains professional and appropriate for the environment.

Remaining hydrated in the heat is imperative, water should be readily available around the office. 2L of fluid is the normal recommended daily intake although during this heat wave, encourage employees to increase their fluid intake to 2.5 – 3L. And reminding them to steer away from tea, coffee and alcohol during the hottest periods of the day is also sensible

Keep sun cream and after sun in the office, perhaps near the refreshment stations, as a helpful reminder to stay sun-safe.

An excellent HR and management team will take careful consideration of their employees with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney disease and heart conditions. These employees are at higher risk of dehydration and more likely to be affected by the heat.  Encourage a culture of regular water breaks, and ensure there are adequate places for employees with diabetes to test their blood sugar, and administer insulin, should they not wish to do so at their desks.

To help all employees, consider introducing flexible working hours – give your staff the option to select more relaxing start and finish times to help them avoid the rush-hour heat, or allow people to work from home to avoid the commute altogether when mercury levels rise to extremely high levels.

Finally, make it fun! Implement Ice-cream Fridays where the boss buys ice creams for the team or encourage employees to enjoy the sunshine during a team picnic lunch in the park.

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