The German government has said office temperatures should be limited to a maximum of 19 degrees Celsius. But was this decision too hasty? It’s already clear that many employers and workers need to turn the heat up.
In the southwestern German city of Ludwigsburg, the thermometer has recently been registering just 6 Celsius (42.8 Fahrenheit) in the morning. But it isn’t a whole lot warmer inside the local branch of the savings bank.
Here, in this town of 90,000 just north of Stuttgart, the bank clerks are serving customers in a room heated to a bracing 19 C (66.2 F), the temperature that, for several weeks now, has defined German working life.
Since September 1, the whole country has been turning down the thermostats to save energy. Measures will remain in place until February 28, and people are getting creative in order to ward off the chill. This Ludwigsburg bank has equipped its 500 employees with gray fleece jackets, with black woolen gloves completing the look for the well-swaddled bank cashiers. Welcome to Germany’s new winter reality.
Temperatures lowered in public buildings
“EnSikuMaV” is the abbreviation for a no less cumbersome German title, which translates as “Statutory Regulation to Secure the Energy Supply via Measures Effective in the Short Term.” This decree is what is behind these measures. The energy supply is at risk as a consequence of Moscow’s war against Ukraine and the lack of the gas usually supplied by the Russian state-owned company Gazprom. As a consequence, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck prepared Germany for some uncomfortable weeks and months ahead.
One of the new measures stipulates that offices in public buildings are allowed to be heated to a maximum room temperature of just 19 Celsius, though exceptions have been made for hospitals and nursing homes, schools and day care centers and facilities for disabled people. The maximum temperature also does not apply to places of work with employees whose health could be compromised by the lack of warmth. However, everyone else will have to start bundling up, because German offices will no longer be heated above those 19 degrees.
Increased health risks
Dr. Anette Wahl-Wachendorf is the vice president of the Association of German Company and Works Doctors. This morning, she did something she is currently recommending to every employee — though it is also something that, at the moment, is probably better avoided: She walked up five floors of stairs to her Berlin office instead of using the elevator. The doctor is observing the company dress code; she is rather thinly dressed, in a blouse and jacket, but would not necessarily advise others to do the same at the moment.
“From a political point of view, I can absolutely understand the German government’s decision,” she said. “I still think it was overhasty, though. It would have been better to have held a critical consideration of the 19-degree limit with medical specialists and company doctors beforehand. Then we wouldn’t be having all these discussions in Germany now.”
Those discussions are because it has become apparent that an office temperature of 19 degrees can indeed, over a period of time, constitute a health risk for many people. The World Health Organization has warned that older people in particular, as well as people with low blood pressure and those who don’t move or exercise much, are at significantly greater risk of infection, respiratory diseases and asthma. Blood vessels constrict at lower temperatures, and the WHO has warned emphatically that this can increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
Nineteen degrees Celsius is also too cold for people with vascular diseases or hypothyroidism, said Wahl-Wachendorf, and for certain occupational groups. “This applies particularly to air traffic controllers, or people in monitoring stations, who have to sit at monitors for hours in a state of high concentration — jobs in which people have to maintain a fixed physical position and are not able to get up and move about at regular intervals,” she said.
Women more productive at warmer temperatures
Family doctors in Germany are already overwhelmed with requests for medical certificates attesting that people must have a warmer office to work in. In fact, the 19-degree rule will also cause a degree of economic damage that should not be underestimated. That is because a low room temperature also has a negative effect on the productivity and efficiency of around half the workforce in Germany — women.
“Battle of the thermostat” was the title of a study done in 2019 — by both a man and a woman — referencing office arguments about the optimal room temperature. The conclusion was clear: Room temperature has a significant effect on the cognitive capabilities of different genders. More than 500 test subjects pored over tricky math and language tests, at temperatures of between 16 and 33 degrees.
The result: Women think better and are more productive in warm rather than colder temperatures. Germany’s energy-saving measures have therefore put them, and thus the country as a whole, at a distinct disadvantage.
“Employers have an interest in ensuring that employees are not too cold — not least from the point of view of productivity, and so that the majority, at least, feel comfortable,” said Wahl-Wachendorf. “Even if that entails blankets or floor mats. For employees, I recommend hot fruit teas, going for walks during lunch break, and wearing warm clothes, such as cardigans, or two pairs of socks.”