Photo: Sergey Pesterev
Office Life

Summer heat makes us less helpful and productive, study says

It’s summertime and the living is…not always easy.

The long days of summer are known to make us happier, as long as the sunny weather is also pleasant. But when the summer temperatures reach highs that create frazzled hair and constant sweat, the uncomfortable heat negatively affects our behavior in the workplace, according to a recent study.

In the European of Journal of Social Psychology, two researchers, Liuba Belkin and Maryam Kouchaki, looked at secret shopper visits in a Russian retail chain to compare how clerks interacted with customers during a heat wave and in normal temperatures.

They tested reactions during the peak of an unprecedented heat wave in Moscow, when clerks at the retail company were working without air-conditioning systems in stores. It was a working condition that would test even the best of us.

The result: Researchers found that clerks were significantly crabbier in the heat. They were 59% less likely to help customers in extreme heat than they were in normal temperatures.

We’re grumpier and less helpful to others in extreme heat

Researchers believed that this grumpiness and fatigue comes from the idea of “conservation of resources” where the “threat of resource loss or depletion is the main cause of stress.”

What that means in plain English is this: When we’re under stress, we get distracted by our need to stay cool and are less able to concentrate and stay alert. In other words, the environmental stress of unbearable heat has just as much an impact on our cognitive reasoning as the everyday office stresses of deadlines and deliverables.

What’s really surprising is that we don’t even have to experience extreme heat to shut down. The researchers found that even just thinking about extreme heat can affect our ability to reason and make us feel more fatigued.

We may be nicer to people when we think we’ll need their body heat.

In a separate test, researchers asked participants to recall a time they felt uncomfortably hot. Then participants were asked to answer trivia questions and take an optional additional survey. Only 44% of participants in the uncomfortable heat group would be helpful and answer the additional survey while 77% of people in the control group would take the optional test.

In a third test, Belkin and Kouchaki split 73 college students in a management course into two groups to take a survey: one group would take a test in a hot classroom and the other would take a test in a comfortably cool classroom. Students were told that they did not have to answer every question in the survey, but that the answering as many questions as possible would be helpful for a nonprofit for underprivileged people in the community.

There’s a temperature at which we absolutely know our patience runs out: 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Generosity and helpfulness hit its limits in a room that was 80 degrees, the researchers found. Students in the hot classroom answered on average only six questions compared to the 35 questions answered in the air-conditioned classroom. The students were all well-fed in both conditions, so we know they weren’t experiencing hunger-fueled anger, or “hangry.” They were just overheated and as a result, uncooperative.

It’s better to be cold than warm in an office setting

Researchers were building off of previous literature that found we interact with clients and customers better in comfortably cool temperatures over comfortably warm temperatures.

Researchers speculated that this goes back to our hunter-gatherer days when we needed each other for body heat: “the need for inclusion and affiliation may drive this effect and motivate people to engage more in social interactions to thermoregulate their bodily states.” In other words, we may be nicer to people when we think we’ll need their body heat.

So as we’re shivering in our offices blasting air conditioning this summer, know that we may be chillier than preferred, but this is our brains’ preferred state for collaboration and being helpful to our colleagues.