Dog Days of Summer Kill Productivity

I’m not getting much done right now here at the beginning of August. You? Sure, we have a lot to do — don’t we? — but a general malaise settles into the workplace throughout the United States when the temperature is pushing 90 degrees every day. From the time we get up until the blessed evening, we are going through the motions every day, waiting for the weather to break. A big day for me is updating my “To Do” list. Not doing any of it mind you, just updating it. I bet this sounds familiar to a lot of you.

This is not exactly a groundbreaking insight. Almost every study of office workers that has examined the question indicates that productivity slows during the summer months. In one recent British survey, 25 percent of staffers claim to work hard only one day per week this time of year. Human resources managers in another survey estimated that productivity slows between 20 and 30 percent during the summer in their offices. It’s worse among younger workers. In one poll, 79 percent of Gen-Yers said they expect extra time off during the summer (as opposed to the 69 percent who expect extra time off the rest of the year, I presume).

Not long ago, Talent Management published an article examining this issue in greater depth, and offering some helpful suggestions on what employers can do to maintain productivity during the light beer and hot dog months. While preparing the article, its author asked me (your intrepid “Psychology at Work” correspondent) whether there are issues beyond the obvious that interfere with work during this time of year. My answer might surprise you.

I am sure you are aware, from personal observation or media reports, that weather has an effect on mood. It is called seasonal affective disorder, and it is usually associated with cold weather. Winter and its darkness induce symptoms of depression in a certain number of people, and the longer it is cold and dark, the worse the symptoms. That is one reason why I and about 25 million other people choose to live in Florida.

However, winter isn’t the only villain. Although kids and water sport types look forward to summer with gleeful anticipation, for a certain number of people summer results in mild depression and slowed mental processing abilities.

A study of weather on mood and cognition, published in 2005 in the academic journal Psychological Science, showed that hot weather over long periods of time decreases mood and cognition in a surprisingly large segment of the population.

We don’t want to work as hard on tough issues during summer because we just aren’t up to the mental heavy lifting. We don’t want to play as hard either.

You wonder why the company summer picnic winds up a bust some of the time.

If there is some comforting news in all of this, at least for the general population, it is that the lethargy associated with summer doesn’t lead to more serious psychological issues. Seasonal extremes have their greatest affect on those already suffering from clinical depression, according to a major longitudinal study of the issue. In other words, the lowered mood summer can bring is temporary for most. Wait for the first hint of autumn and things, hopefully, will seem normal again.

So, hotshot corporate exec, maybe this month isn’t the time to launch a major project at work. Get through the dog days, relax and take advantage of the many good things summer brings — like Wednesday afternoon baseball and 4 o’clock happy hours on the patio — and give everybody a break.

 We’ll be fine by football season.