With temperatures dipping below zero for the first time this year, some already dream of a white Christmas (could it be?). But this first burst of winter also has a less miraculous consequence. The cold temperatures go hand in hand with another rise in energy costs. A bitter pill for businesses and families that were already buckling under the weight of rising wage, living and energy costs.
Many choose to turn the heating down a few degrees. You might have felt it already, but 19 °C is the new office norm this winter. Besides lowering the temperature, some companies also see a solution in working from home. When there are fewer people in the office, there is also less need for heating.
Hidden costs, vulnerable groups
While the aforementioned measures aim to save costs, lower temperatures can also entail unexpected additional costs that are not (easily) visible. Working in a cold environment increases the risk of various illnesses (e.g. hypertension, colds, sore throats and migraines or frequent headaches) and is associated with neck and lower back pain. This increases absenteeism through short and long-term sick leave (Gherscovici and Mayer 2019; Ormandy and Ezratty 2012). The risk of occupational accidents also increases, due to reduced dexterity and concentration (Martínez-Solanas et al. 2018). Certain groups, such as the elderly, women and people with cardiovascular diseases, are more vulnerable to negative health consequences (Conlon et al. 2011).
In addition, working in a cold environment also has negative effects on well-being. It can lead to work stress, reduced motivation and bad moods (Lamb and Kwok 2016). Finally, cold at work also causes a loss of productivity and declining performance. The cold distracts from work and increases fatigue, which makes people work slower and make more mistakes. Experiencing thermal satisfaction plays an important role in this, causing negative effects to occur as early as temperatures below 21 °C (Geng et al. 2017; Lamb and Kwok 2016; Seppanen, Fisk, and Faulkner 2004).
How cold is too cold?
In the workplace, employers are obliged to maintain legally required minimum temperatures. These protect workers from the negative effects of the cold. The minimum temperatures were determined for work in closed and continuously occupied areas, taking into account the physical workload:
However, homeworking is not subject to these regulations, increasing the risk of exposure to cold and the associated negative consequences. Although employees are entitled to a home working allowance that (among other things) should compensate for energy consumption, research shows that home workers are more likely to keep the heating on low anyway (Hampton 2017). Control plays an important role in this. Teleworkers are more likely to be thermally satisfied with the ambient temperature because they can control it themselves, and are also willing to tolerate lower temperatures because of that, which to some extent can help prevent negative effects (Bergefurt et al. 2021).
Inequality plays a big part in this. Not everyone has the option to control the temperature at home. People from lower socio-economic classes are more likely to live in homes that are harder to heat, and they suffer more consequences of the current energy crisis (Galvin and Sunikka-Blank 2018). Energy poverty can lead to cold stress, which in the long term increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases (Ormandy and Ezratty 2012).
As a company, you can ensure that employees can work in an environment that they perceive as thermally comfortable and where the negative health impact is limited. In many buildings, however, thermal conditions are not optimal, e.g. due to insufficient insulation or a poor control system. Investing in energy-efficient buildings and effective cooling and heating methods is then an obvious solution (Seppanen, Fisk, and Faulkner 2004). For example, a measure that is feasible in the short term is to provide rooms with a higher temperature (21°C-24°C) where employees can work alternately.
HR also has an important role to play in promoting employee health, well-being and productivity. These are some actions that can be taken:
Bergefurt, Lisanne, Minou Weijs-perrée, Rianne Appel-meulenbroek, and Theo Arentze. 2021. “The Influence of Employees ’ Workspace Satisfaction on Mental Health While Working from Home during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Healthy buildings 2021-Europe. (2021): 1–9.
Conlon, Kathryn C. et al. 2011. “Preventing Cold-Related Morbidity and Mortality in a Changing Climate.” Maturitas 69(3): 197–202.
Galvin, Ray, and Minna Sunikka-Blank. 2018. “Economic Inequality and Household Energy Consumption in High-Income Countries: A Challenge for Social Science Based Energy Research.” Ecological Economics 153(July): 78–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2018.07.003.
Geng, Yang, Wenjie Ji, Borong Lin, and Yingxin Zhu. 2017. “The Impact of Thermal Environment on Occupant IEQ Perception and Productivity.” Building and Environment 121: 158–67. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2017.05.022.
Gherscovici, Ezequiel D, and John M Mayer. 2019. “Literature Review Relationship of Healthy Building Determinants With Back and Neck Pain: A Systematic Review.” American Journal of Health Promotion 2022(0): 1–29.
Hampton, Sam. 2017. “An Ethnography of Energy Demand and Working from Home: Exploring the Affective Dimensions of Social Practice in the United Kingdom.” Energy Research and Social Science 28(March): 1–10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2017.03.012.
Lamb, S., and K. C.S. Kwok. 2016. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Work Environment Stressors on the Performance and Wellbeing of Office Workers.” Applied Ergonomics 52: 104–11. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2015.07.010.
Martínez-Solanas, Èrica et al. 2018. “Evaluation of the Impact of Ambient Temperatures on Occupational Injuries in Spain.” Environmental Health Perspectives 126(6): 1–10.
Ormandy, David, and Véronique Ezratty. 2012. “Health and Thermal Comfort: From WHO Guidance to Housing Strategies.” Energy Policy 49: 116–21.
Seppanen, Olli, William J. Fisk, and David Faulkner. 2004. “Control of Temperature for Health and Productivity in Offices.” ASHRAE Transactions 111.