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Global heating and the future of work

As summer draws to a close, businesses need to consider mitigation strategies for a future in which heatwaves are more frequent.

By Mansoor Soomro

Global temperatures are rising and so are workplace concerns. While serious action is rightly being taken to reduce carbon emissions and the transition to renewable energy, climate mitigation strategies preparing us for the knock-on effects of global warming need to be implemented fast. The impact of high temperatures and expert forecasts suggesting that the heatwave uptrend will only get worse, mean businesses should proactively plan to cope better with extreme temperatures.

There are compelling reasons why businesses should get serious about climate change and its impact on their workplace and workforce. First, for their own good – to preserve business productivity. Heat-related discomfort adversely affects job performance. Companies should aim to provide a comfortable working environment so that employees can be productive and deliver their best.

Second, businesses cannot jeopardise their organisational resilience – the ability to adapt and recover from ongoing disruptions. Learning from the pandemic, companies are planning better to deal with uncertain and complex situations. Likewise, building resilience around heatwaves and extreme temperatures is important, especially when an organisation has diverse employees and complex operations across a number of locations.

Third, heatwaves can have a significant adverse impact on business reputation and financials. For example, in case of accidents or illness due to high temperatures, both employees and employers may suffer. The latter have a duty of care to ensure all their employees are safe. But what initiatives and actions can businesses take to deal with heatwaves and extreme temperatures? How will the future of work, workforces and workplaces change in this context?

Flexible working arrangements – modern ways of working such as remote work, hybrid work, four-day weeks or six-hour work days – are proving to be helpful in heatwaves. Heat risk assessments are also becoming more common. Businesses are conducting them as a periodic exercise to identify vulnerable individuals within organisations to see how they will cope with heatwaves. This includes the ageing workforce, pregnant women and employees with disabilities, resulting in allowances and additional leverages when necessary.

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[See also: Does the UK need new heatwave working laws?]

Businesses are also changing work patterns, through which employees can be gradually exposed to hot working conditions. This will help their bodies adapt and acclimatise, reducing the risk of heat-related sickness. For example, in really extreme temperatures, certain organisations use heat chambers or tents: employees spend time in these controlled environments to initiate the acclimatisation process before working outdoors. Employee wellness initiatives are spreading. All major companies have wellness programmes, but these now commonly include specific heat-related health initiatives. Training workshops on heat stress management, fitness and nutrition plans are needed to deal better with heatwaves and extreme temperatures.

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In the near future, the ability to cope with the changing climate can be a major strength that businesses develop as part of their resilience. It is imperative to educate employees on preventive and corrective actions around heatwave-related procedures and the risks of heat-related illnesses. This will increase awareness, starting from hydration to business strategies covering the capacity planning of staff during extreme heat. As an added benefit, businesses that demonstrate a commitment to environmental stewardship are more likely to attract and retain top talent, especially among the younger generation.

Though businesses are continuously investing in heat-resistant working environments, attention to sustainable building infrastructure with better air-conditioning systems is a key concern for future workplace design. The monitoring of temperature at workplaces with various temperature-monitoring gadgets is also common now. Legislation plays an important role too. The positive news is that some governments are already putting into place laws addressing working amid rising temperatures. In the UK, the Trades Union Congress has lobbied hard for maximum working temperatures of 30°C, or 27°C for manual labour, to be introduced.

Overall, rising temperatures present a multifaceted challenge that demands immediate attention. From acknowledging that such situations require a quick response to preparing employees to deal with it better, climate change poses a grave risk to the sustainability of businesses around the world. The future of work is dynamic and evolving, with both challenges and opportunities for employees, employers and policymakers. Together, we can build a future in which workers are prepared, protected and resilient in the face of climate change’s inevitable impacts.

[See also: Are extreme heatwaves the new normal?]