As a heatwave sweeps across Europe, we should be thinking about the impact these temperatures have on workers and productivity – and adapt before it reaches London too, writes Elena Siniscalco
Over the weekend, I was amused by a piece recounting an Italian holiday ruined by a heatwave in 2022. Fast forward a year, and Brits are still terrified to board their flights to the Mediterranean with the prospect of having to face temperatures well above 35 degrees – and in some cases, above 40 degrees.
We should be worrying about heatwaves: as a climate emergency on the rise, they prove particularly dangerous for older demographics and low income individuals who might not have access to air conditioning in their homes and are more likely to work jobs that require being out and about rather than locked in the safety of a chilly office.
But if Brits are worried about the heat of Tuscany’s beaches or Sicilian temples, they should really try spending a summer working in Rome – the “infernal city”, as The Times called it last week.
Temperatures in the capital over summer easily get to around 28 or 30 degrees, but are reaching above 35 this year. Most of the locals are still working in July, before jetting off to more temperate shores in August, so it’s not only tourists sweating in the heat at the moment.
I have very vivid memories of a long summer spent working in Rome – my first experience in journalism. As the intern, I was happily sacrificed on the altar of the news and was the one sent to all the live events and press conferences. At the time, I thought it was incredibly generous; it didn’t take me long to see the true motives as my colleagues lounged around in air-conditioned offices. I faced the heat waiting for buses that never arrived, on trams packed with people and walking up and down the streets until I finally gave up and rented one ridiculously tiny yellow electric car with only windows for ventilation.
Aside from the obvious dangers to health and wellbeing, heatwaves pose a question of productivity for the workforce – and for big cities. People work differently when the heat around them is unbearable, and cities must take this into account. As giants beasts of concrete and asphalt, they tend to be invariably warmer than the countryside around them. Cast your mind back to last summer in London, when shops and businesses shut their doors as temperatures hovered over 40 degrees.
There is not much research on heat and productivity, but an LSE working paper from 2016 brings some clarity, suggesting – as expected – that more labour intensive sectors are more exposed to heat waves. Sectors with “lower elasticity between labour and capital” are also subjected to the same faith, according to the authors.
In practice, it means cities whose economic output relies heavily on sectors like construction would face large productivity costs.
The study estimates that “in a warm year in the far future (2081-2100)” the losses to the urban economy could “range between 0.4 per cent of Gross Value Added (GVA) for London and 9.5 per cent for Bilbao in the absence of adaptation”.
Suggested adaptation measures include installing air conditioning and solar blinds, as well as improving insulation. For London in particular, changing working hours – working between 7 and 11 am and then between 17 and 20 – could “save the London economy over 700 million euros by the end of the century”. Watch the Brits embrace the siesta.
London might be fine this summer, but won’t necessarily be over the next ones. So it’d be better, instead of just looking at Europe with fear, to start to prepare, so that when extreme temperatures reach these shores too, employers won’t have to suffer in the sweltering heat like I did on that Roman summer years ago.