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Here’s why you’re freezing at work

6 min read
9 Jan 2016

Some like it hot while others crave the big chill every day in the office. Even in the stark summer heat, we might be reaching for an extra layer due to standardised air conditioning that (sadly) can’t suit all of the people all of the time. Come winter, things may take a different turn, as the thermostat is set to a suffocating temperature, again requiring the need for removable layers. How can they get it so wrong? Let’s unpack the problem one step at a time.

First, some science!

The Human Thermal Comfort Model is a formula developed in the 1950s that took into account all the variables that affect body temperature. Based on these variables, it gave us an optimal ambient temperature for humans to sit/work in. It is used today to fine tune HVAC systems (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) both commercially and domestically – so it’s likely your office has been influenced by this model.

The definition of ‘optimal’ is a pretty subjective, however. It takes into account the following 6 factors:

  1. Ambient or air temperature. What temperature is the air surrounding the person?
  2. Air velocity. How fast is the air around you moving? Does it allow lost heat to accumulate around your body?
  3. Clothing insulation. Another personal variable: how much do your garments breathe? Are you sitting in layers? What materials are you wearing?
  4. Metabolic rate. This is an individual measurement, and is typically different for men and women.
  5. Radiant temperature. This can be trapped heat through windows, machinery or accumulated body heat due to crowding.
  6. Relative humidity. This is the evaluation of condensation in the air, given as a percentage of the total air. A higher humidity makes it harder for our bodies to lose heat.

Related: Does work actually cost you 50% of your wage?

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What’s wrong with this model?

The chief problem with the Human Thermal Comfort Model is that it can only give us averages, leaving a proportion of the populace – about 10% of us – too warm or too cold.

Operative TemperatureAcceptable range
Winter22ºC20 – 23ºC
Summer24.5ºC23 – 26ºC

One of the main problems is that the calculation is based on a presumed metabolic rate. The formula was developed using the average weight of a male at the time (70kgs), which made sense when men dominated office environments. The average weight for a woman, were it taken into account, was 63kgs. Times have changed though, and while the average female weight is still lower than a man’s, the numbers have changed substantially: in 2012, the average Australian adult male weighed 85.9kgs, while their female counterparts were around the 71.1kg mark. We have a higher metabolic rate as a collective than we did several decades ago.

Not a myth: women feel the cold more

It’s easy to dismiss the idea that women feel the cold more because there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. But a University of Utah study into the differences between men and women’s core and peripheral body temperatures compiled some pretty compelling data. The paper, aptly named “Cold Hands, Warm Heart”, showed that while a woman is warmer at her core, her hands are distinctly cooler. That’s going to make working in a cold environment difficult, especially if it involves using your hands.

Clothing can also have a big impact on your thermal comfort levels, and this is another noticeable difference between the sexes. In a formal office environment, men can be found in shirts and suits, ensuring they are layered up while still looking sharp. Woollen suits will trap the heat more than other materials. Female workers in the same environment may feel the need to wear stockings instead of socks, and skirts or dresses over pants, which can mean they are more susceptible to being cold.

5 ways to warm up in the office

You’re not always destined to be an ice block in an office chair though! While the office thermostat isn’t always negotiable, there are a few steps that can go a long way towards making you more comfortable, and therefore more productive.

  1. A hot drink. Skip the cardboard coffee cup and pour your own warm liquid into a porcelain mug that holds the heat. While it is unlikely to warm you up from the inside, it can at least act as a nice little heat conductor for icy fingers.
  2. Keep a large wrap/scarves in your drawer. A silk scarf or any kind of stylish wrap will add a layer to your clothing and cover up exposed areas (like your neck). Try something neutral to go with every outfit, and yes – even gents can pull this off. Be daring, lads!
  3. Wear a good pair of thermal socks. The ankles and feet suffer disproportionately in the cold. Provided your outfit allows for it, try rugging up under boots and closed shoes. A good, quality pair of woollen socks doesn’t need to be thick in order to be effective.

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  1. Get an ergonomic desk setup. This mightn’t sound like a very intuitive way to get warm, but you’d be surprised. If your arms and legs are not positioned well, you’re compromising blood flow to these areas. If your arms are too high and your legs are dangling, they are likely to be a little cooler. A foot stool and a posture assessment can ensure your limbs are at the optimal angles for good blood flow.
  2. Stand up and move. While most of don’t have the luxury of a standing or treadmill desk, we can stand up and move our limbs frequently. Doing this has wider benefits for health, but for warmth alone, a quick walk will awaken your muscles and create a touch more heat. You can simply head to the staff kitchen and make that warm cuppa, or head out into the sunshine for just a few minutes.

Picking your battles

Sadly, it’s usually a case of majority rules in a shared environment. If you’re an outlier in the comfort stakes, it’s probably the case of you adapting to your environment rather than the other way around. Select your outfit carefully, even if you’re prone to overheating rather than being chilly. Choosing warm or cool food and drinks will assist in thermoregulation, and always have a couple of layers hidden away in your desk drawer so you can take action when needed!

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