Will Extreme Heat Reshape the World of Work?

Photo by Pawel Janiak on Unsplash

Summer is meant to be hot. Indeed, more often than not vacationers might complain about the lack of sufficiently warm ‘beach’ weather or the rainy days that interfere with their planned activities. Yet, with increased regularity we are also experiencing dangerous heatwaves and their impactful consequences. Just a couple of weeks ago southern Europe was grappling with an extreme heatwave called the Cerberus. Multiple Italian cities issued red alerts about the situation, Spain, Croatia and Greece battled forest wildfires, and Athens’ authorities decided to temporarily close the Acropolis in order to avoid heat-related causalities among tourists.

Extreme temperatures are becoming the new normal and the ways they influence global economies become ever more evident. Naturally, when cultural sites are being closed and wildfires pose danger, tourism is the primary sector to be hit. However, we can also think of many more general and overarching problems and challenges for other industries.

For starters, when it is too hot to work, organizations need to deal with health risks and productivity problems, be it in agriculture, factories, or construction sites, to name a few. A convincing amount of psychological data indicates that in hot temperatures our cognitive abilities to perform complex tasks decline. For example, it might be more difficult to focus, reaction time slows down, and we experience more fatigue… Hence, at the least, there is a loss of productivity, but there is also a higher likelihood of mistakes and related work injuries. Moreover, researchers link extreme heat to increased aggression, a phenomenon well documented already by Dostoevsky in his ‘Crime and Punishment’. In light of this heat-aggression relationship, it comes as no surprise that Raskolnikov committed his crime on an exceptionally hot July day. Also outside the fictional world, statistical data shows that more violent crimes happen during the summer months than any other season.

Apart from these people-related challenges, extreme heat also influences materials and machinery, supply chain routes (think about dried out rivers for example), the durability of infrastructure, agricultural yields and so on and so forth.

As scientists foresee a further increase in global warming and AI predicts that we will cross the critical global warming threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius within 10 to 15 years, it becomes clear that extremely hot temperatures is something we need to start adapting to. Organizations and industries will need to make big decisions on where to conduct their business geographically, how to adapt working hours to the weather conditions, and how to decrease temperature-related risks and costs. A quick theme-related internet search indicates that the simple go-to solutions proposed are about cooling apparel, availability and accessibility of water coolers and cooldown stations in the workplace, proper temperature cooling technology, frequent water/cooldown breaks and flexible work schedules, which adjust to temperature fluctuations. On a more general level, we might also need a shift in our mindsets and start to think about hot temperatures as an actual threat that will most probably worsen in the foreseeable future and that has to be dealt with already now. All in all, temperature seems to be claiming its spot as an additional big and important factor to acknowledge, account for, and adapt to in the new world of work.

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