What future of work in a warmer world?
Summer is always my least productive season. When it gets hot, I get lazy and want to avoid work as much as possible. While I am privileged enough to be able to slow down and even enjoy a luxurious month off (a very French tradition that I love dearly), most workers do not have that privilege. Yet for them too heat and work do not go well together.
This summer of 2023 feels like a broken record when it comes to heat and disaster records. June was the hottest June ever recorded on Earth. So was July. Regardless of whether or not August will also be record-breaking, 2023 is already on par to be one of the (if not the) hottest year in history. Disasters (like giant fires) have become so numerous that we've gotten used to them. It all seems like a new normal 🥵
What does all this mean for the future of work? I find relatively few experts focus on this issue (they prefer to obsess over generative AI and the end of work). Admittedly if you’re concerned about species going extinct, civilisations collapsing, human health declining and other such depressing subjects, the impact of heat on the way we work may be the least of your concerns.
But you’d be wrong not to mind the impact of climate change on work, its distribution and organisation, new inequalities and losses in productivity. The impact is profound. When it comes to the future of work, we’ll need to focus a little less on office work (the debates around remote work & productivity and around generative AI & the end of human creative work) and more on work in construction, infrastructure maintenance, energy, agriculture, domestic care and delivery…
A new fault line seems to be emerging, between workers who can avoid the heat (let's call them the cool collars) and those who are subjected to it with increasing severity (the hot collars). Alas, there are many more of the latter than we believe, and their number could very well increase in the future. Both to mitigate climate change (reduce greenhouse gas emissions) and to adapt to it (change our infrastructures and the ways we do things to continue to live in a warmer world), we’ll need more and more of those essential workers who also happen to be hot collars…
I recently watched a fascinating Arte documentary titled “Too hot to work” (in French, also on YouTube) about the impact of rising heat on the world’s farm and construction workers. It inspired me to think about how heat is transforming work and how we should take global warming into account to regulate and organise work better. 👇💡
The office has air conditioning
Not everyone works inside offices or factories that can have AC. In fact, when it comes to AC there are huge global disparities, both economic and cultural. Nevertheless in warm places, offices (and some factories) are generally equipped with AC, which makes them pleasant places to escape unbearable heat. The opposition between cool and hot collars is likely to be exacerbated: as temperatures rise, being able to work sheltered from the heat is increasingly valuable (and saves lives). And as more AC is used inside these spaces, the surrounding area gets even hotter, so cool collars can be accused of outsourcing (and increasing) the hardship of climate change to hot collars. This further accentuates the disparity.
Office work is also generally space agnostic. It’s work that can be done anywhere (provided there’s wifi). So an office worker can theoretically also live in an area less affected by heat. This is why debates on the future of office work focus so much on remote work and the geographical distribution of workers. This is also why there’s growing interest in the domestic workspace and its ergonomics.
What future of the office in a warmer world? To mitigate climate change, we ought to reduce commuting as well as AC use. In countries where people are less equipped with AC at home, heat is an extra reason to commute to the office. Conversely in countries (like the US) where most people have AC at home, remote work makes more sense.
Ideally, if we wanted to reduce the energy spent on commuting and air conditioning, while ensuring good quality of work, we’d need small, well-designed offices (with ventilation, ergonomics, plants and insulation in mind) to share the costs of cooling the space. And these offices should be located close to where the workers live, so as to shorten commuting times (and make them less arduous).
But space isn't everything. In a world that's too hot, you can't work at certain hours. The body tires more quickly (even when it's only being used to work on Excel spreadsheets). Adapting office work to hotter conditions also means adapting working hours and workloads: shorter, more flexible working hours, regular breaks, naps in the middle of the day, etc.
Yes, the traditional siesta of hot countries will be all the more welcome as the working population ages at the same time as the planet warms up. Recently I’ve read articles in German media about the relevance of the midday siesta. Those same Germans who used to despise this southern European institution now seem to find it attractive!
The siesta lived on, though rumors of its demise circulated. And now, as Europe has been gripped by more frequent and longer heat waves, other countries have come to see the wisdom of the siesta, including Germany, where a strong work ethic is valued sometimes to the point of mockery. German newspapers were among those sneering at the siesta during the economic crisis. But this summer, some German officials and work experts are extolling the virtues of a midday break. (The New York Times).
Construction workers are on the front line
Construction workers are outside, directly on the front line of climate change. Their number could increase as the needs linked to global warming are on the rise (energy efficiency of buildings, insulation, adaptation of workplaces and homes, migratory movements and construction of new housing, etc). What's more, with more disasters occurring, there will be more and more reconstruction work to do. Our infrastructures will fail more and more. To enable buildings and infrastructures to withstand extreme events, we will need adapted constructions. In short, building needs promise to be considerable in the medium and long term. Millions new construction workers will have to be recruited.
Many of these needs are in countries (emerging or not) where temperatures are already extremely high. This is why construction workers are already among the most exposed to the consequences of global warming. Most of them are migrants. Many of them live and work in unbearable conditions. Tens of thousands die every year.
Take Qatar, for example. The year 2022 put the plight of migrant construction workers in the spotlight. 6,500 of them or more are said to have died in 2022 alone, in the run-up to the football World Cup, highlighting the stark contrast between those who are protected from the heat and those who are not. These migrants, many of whom are Nepalese, have died from heat stress in the construction of sports facilities, which reminds of the fate of slaves in Ancient Rome’s games.
Thousands more, suffering from kidney failure, are regularly sent back to their home countries —and the latter must then finance dialyses... even though the kidney failure in question should be the responsibility of employers who subject their workers to working conditions incompatible with human health.
However there’s one somewhat encouraging outcome that emerged from all this. Qatar being already exposed to unbearable temperatures (and suffering from a bad reputation as an exploiter of poor migrant workers) has put in place pioneering regulation of work in hot weather which can serve as a blueprint for the rest of the world. (See “Heat Stress Legislation in Qatar”).
What is heat stress? When a person performs hard physical work, the body produces high amounts of heat which must be relieved to the environment to maintain a stable body temperature. It does this mainly by producing sweat on the skin so that it can be evaporated, and by sending more blood to areas that are cooler, such as the skin, the arms, and the legs. If the person is performing work in a hot environment, it is a lot more difficult to get rid of the heat that is being produced internally. If the body cannot get rid of excess heat, its core temperature rises and the heart rate increases. As the body continues to store heat, the person begins to lose concentration and has difficulty focusing on a task, may become irritable or sick, and often loses the desire to drink water. The next stage is most often fainting and even death if the person is not rapidly cooled down.
The first element of this regulation concerns perceived temperatures. Our bodies cannot work beyond a certain temperature. Wet-bulb globe temperature (WBGT) is a measure of how hot it feels when taking into account factors like humidity, air movement, and direct sunlight. It's an important measurement in hot and humid conditions because it helps assess the risk of heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heatstroke. By monitoring WBGT, employers must take necessary precautions to protect workers, such as providing more breaks, shade, and hydration, and adjusting work schedules to avoid the hottest parts of the day. All work must stop if the WBGT rises beyond 32.1 °C.
Death and ill-health can be prevented by adjusting the workday and stopping work in the hottest hours of the day, adding regular, compulsory breaks, encouraging hydration and reducing the pace of work. This necessarily means lower productivity and higher costs, which is why employers can’t be expected to enforce those measures by their own free will. Laws must be implemented to force them to heed human health.
Many developed countries (like France) have not yet adopted regulations concerning heat at work. Yet they too are now confronted at times with temperatures that can become too extreme for outdoor work. There is an urgent need to put in place a legal framework to protect the health of the workers concerned.
Farm workers are among the most neglected essential workers
Agricultural workers are often forgotten. There are way fewer of them than in the past. And most of them work in poorer countries, in the informal sector. Globally they represent about 25% of the workforce. But that average masks a huge disparity: in developing countries (parts of South Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, for example), the percentage often exceeds 50%. By contrast, in Europe, it is generally below 5% ; in the United States, it ranges between 1% and 2%.
It is likely that after over two centuries of steady decline, this percentage will increase once again. Indeed, to mitigate climate change, there is a need to turn towards a more environmentally friendly and labor-intensive agriculture (organic farming requires more labor). To adapt to a world where natural disasters reduce available agricultural land, each country will probably need to increase its food sovereignty. In other words, this essential work that we had somewhat forgotten, which involves producing our food, is likely to become much more visible again.
A particularly heartbreaking example is presented in the Arte documentary mentioned earlier. Sugar cane workers in Nicaragua, subjected to grueling work rhythms, are dying in large numbers from kidney failure due to unbearable working conditions. These demanding agricultural rhythms have their roots in systems of slavery. Workers are forced to work very quickly to earn a sufficient income, which prevents them from listening to what their bodies need. It's as if they are running a marathon in 40-degree weather for 8-10 hours every day. Kidney problems have become an epidemic observed in all regions of the world where there is labor-intensive agriculture and high temperatures.
For decades, a mystery epidemic has plagued young male labourers toiling in Nicaragua’s sugar cane plantations. The men start their work fit and strong, but after repeated harvests chopping cane under the tropical sun, they begin to suffer from nausea, back pain and exhaustion, get such severe muscle weakness that they can no longer earn a living, then end up dying of kidney failure, despite many being only in their 20s and 30s. In Chichigalpa, the centre of Nicaragua’s sugar cane industry, the mysterious illness accounts for half of all male deaths over the last decade. Just outside this “town of city and rum”, as it is known, one rural community has earned itself the moniker “La Isla de Viudas” – the Island of Widows. (The Guardian).
The dynamics of agricultural labor (and its geographic distribution) can only be truly understood on a global scale. Wealthy countries outsource the majority of the unbearable work required to support their societies: either by importing raw materials from poor countries or by importing migrant labor from poor countries (for instance, in jobs like working in slaughterhouses). Even if not explicitly named, this system replicates colonial and slave systems that were established in past centuries.
I would have liked to also discuss the contrasting fate of essential service workers, those who care for the elderly (heavily impacted by global warming), those who work in (super hot) kitchens, or deliver letters and packages under unbearable conditions. (Just read this New York Times article titles “UPS Drivers Say ‘Brutal’ Heat Is Endangering Their Lives”) 🥵 Unfortunately, I'm already approaching the word limit allowed by Substack.
I'll just write a brief conclusion. The issue of global warming should be central in our considerations about the future of work. For mitigation and adaptation, we need to organise work differently. In essence — and this is a message I continuously emphasise — we'll need to work fewer hours, rest more, and rethink ergonomics under the dual constraints of heat and ageing. Otherwise, we will just die sooner.
Stay cool and chill! 🧊 🤗
This article is a repost of Laetitia Vitaud's Substack newsletter from August 20, 2023. You can subscribe to her wonderful newsletter Laetitia@Work here.