What happens when it is too hot to work? Heat hurts both human health and economies


Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, emphasized the critical importance of addressing the impact of climate change on human health at COP28. This year's climate summit notably elevated the discussion around the health implications of climate change. The focus on health has been heightened due to the increasing awareness of the severe consequences of rising temperatures. The intensified heat exacerbates preexisting medical conditions such as lung disease and cardiovascular problems, significantly increasing their fatality rates. Furthermore, elevated temperatures also heighten the risk of dehydration, potentially leading to kidney issues. The most extreme conditions of heat and humidity can even make it impossible for individuals to regulate their body temperature, essentially causing their organs to overheat. It is estimated that in the United States, heat waves claim more lives annually than any other natural disaster. A recent study in the Lancet, a medical journal, attempted to quantify the economic impact of these health repercussions.  

 The study projected that in 2022, high temperatures resulted in 490 billion lost hours of labor due to dangerous working conditions caused by heat and sunlight exposure. This led to a global GDP that was $863 billion smaller than it would have been otherwise, surpassing the economic impact of extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods. The authors noted that their estimates did not factor in informal economy labor. The agricultural sector, where workers spend extended hours outdoors, bore the brunt of the impact. This disproportionately affected poorer regions, which heavily rely on farming and often experience higher temperatures. Across all industries, lost potential earnings due to heat exposure accounted for nearly 5% of overall GDP for countries in Southeast Asia and over 4% for those in Africa. Projections suggest that this situation will worsen as current global temperatures, averaging 1.1-1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, continue to rise. The report indicates that a temperature increase to just under 2°C would result in a further 50% rise in heat-related labor loss.

 The Lancet study focused solely on days too hot for formal paid work, excluding unpaid labor and the informal economy. However, climate change will also exacerbate health and economic challenges through other means. Warmer seas have facilitated the spread of bacteria causing fatal diseases and sepsis to new coastal areas, while wetter weather has expanded the habitats of disease-carrying vectors like mosquitoes, transmitting malaria, dengue, and West Nile virus to new populations. Climate change not only renders working conditions too hazardous in some regions but also makes individuals too ill to work, imposing additional costs on society for their care.  

Even nearly four years on from the pandemic, many companies are still grappling with a fundamental mismatch between the workers who prefer to work from home and the bosses who prefer a standard amount of in-person work. It’s led to cratering retention, productivity, and morale—but picking any one kind of work arrangement for everyone isn’t quite the fix. 

That’s according to a new report from corporate wellness platform Gympass in conjunction with Northwell Health on the “State of Work-Life Wellness.” Their survey of 5,000-plus full-time workers didn’t reveal a clear answer to the question of where today’s “best place to work” actually is. Instead, the spread was fairly even among workers who preferred remote, hybrid, and in-office work. That showed that the key to mental wellness, rather than the location itself, is the ability to choose. 

Gympass researchers compared workers whose companies allowed them to work in their preferred setting (“matched” workers) with those whose settings were chosen for them (“unmatched”). Those who had the opportunity to choose were more productive, lower stress, better rested, and twice as likely to report being happy with their employer. But with so many companies issuing mandated office returns, that’s not the norm everywhere, and it’s creating a big gap in workplace well-being.

“When a wellness deficit grows large enough, it can drive absenteeism, a clear and complete lack of productivity,” the Gympass report reads. “But the even more widespread—and costly—result is presenteeism, where employees who are physically at work are unproductive due to illness, anxiety, or other distraction.”

Employees’ needs and wants are continuing to evolve, Gympass’s cofounder and CEO, Cesar Carvalho, told Fortune and the onus is on employers to satisfy them with strong wellness benefits and flexibility. Gympass itself boasts a flexibility policy that “embraces the benefits of in-office and remote work without mandating any set amount of days or time in the office,” he adds.

The power of choice has long been the approach most workplace experts advocate for, and it’s been the recommendation of those who study future work trends. It’s a cornerstone of policy for Annie Dean, the VP of Team Anywhere at Atlassian, a distributed work consortium at the software firm that pushes for flexible work—both in hours and location. 

Even two or three required in-office days per week are asking too much, Dean says. “Hybrid is an illusion of choice,” she told Fortune earlier this year. Any amount of mandated in-office days removes many of the benefits of distributed work for the employee “and much of the benefit for the company.” 

Even just one day of mandated in-office attendance—against employee wishes—requires people to “organize their life around the office, and companies have to pay the highest cost of real estate,” Dean pointed out. “It means you’re carrying all the costs of the old model, and can’t have any efficiencies of the new model.” 

Gympass’s findings indicate that the “push for work-life balance is fatally flawed,” writes Maxine Carrington, Chief People Officer at Northwell Health, in the report. “Our professional experiences cannot be tended to separately from our life. The futility is instantly apparent when you apply this line of thinking to any other dimension of wellness. You would not tell somebody who is sick to focus on improving their health-life balance, or somebody who is lonely to do a better job of community-life balance. We all know those experiences are what constitutes well-being itself. Occupational well-being is no different.”

That’s why allowing flexibility on a worker’s own terms is so crucial to their overall satisfaction—and performance. Most workers told Gympass that every dimension of well-being, both physical and mental, impacts their productivity at work.

Workers value their own well-being in much greater numbers these days; nearly all (93%) of Gympass’s respondents said their well-being is equally as important as their salary—a 10% jump from last year. Another figure that rose 10% year over year: was the share of workers (87%) who would consider leaving a job that doesn’t prioritize their well-being.

In fact, nearly all (96%) of respondents said going forward, they’re only going to consider companies that share their “clear emphasis on well-being.” And no, that doesn’t just mean a free subscription to the Calm app or a quiet space in the office; it means sincere, structural design that puts the employee before the work output.

In today’s day and age, prioritizing well-being and mental health is no longer optional, he added: “It’s a critical investment…companies that will be most successful in 2024 will be the ones that recognize the profound impact of wellness initiatives on employee satisfaction and productivity.”

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