Weather the storm, come rain or shine

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
A weekly column on how the mind works

The sun shines and our spirits soar. It's a common reaction to feel good when the weather picks up, and a lot of psychological research backs the view that changes in the weather can affect our mood and psyche.

A recent study by economists David Hirshleifer and Tyler Shumway of the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University and University of Michigan Business School demonstrates that a bit of sunshine bounces up stock market returns. Their theory is that good weather puts people in a good mood, which increases optimism, although the traders believe improved market conditions, rather than the sun, are responsible for making them feel positive. In other words, despite what traders might imagine, it's the wonderful summer morning that is putting a spring in their step, not the green shoots of economic upturn.

Many teachers work in badly designed buildings - a fact that is overlooked by most investigations into stress. In inhospitable environments, the weather can have a greater negative impact on mental well-being than in a more comfortable environment. Schools could even be dangerous to health - especially if the building gets too warm and there is no easy access to drinking water.

The latest medical research published in Atmosphere Environment found that 2,000 people died in the scorching summer of 2003 in the UK. Temperatures soared in August, with an all-time record of around 38.5C in London. The death rate was due not so much to the heat itself, but the effect of sunlight on increased air pollution, creating low-level ozone, which plays havoc with the lungs. According to legal firms that specialise in employment law, teachers - unlike office workers - cannot walk off the job if certain basic environmental conditions aren't met. Drinking water may be available in most schools, but when did you come across one with air conditioning?

So much for "good" weather. What about the winter? Research from health insurance companies shows that January is the peak month for illness, so schools should brace themselves for an increase in staff absenteeism after the Christmas break.

According to research by the Met Office, which compared hospital admission records and severe illness trends with weather conditions, sudden drops in temperature trigger a sharp rise in the number of heart attacks and strokes. Cold weather leads to rises in adrenalin levels, pulse rate and blood pressure which, in turn, increase the risk of cardiovascular problems.

During the winter, a third of us will suffer from various symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (Sad), including lowered mood, tiredness and increased appetite. It's almost a desire to hibernate which might have been hard-wired into us by our ancestors' experiences. The cause of Sad is not - as is commonly believed - the cold, but rather the lack of light, so schools should think about fitting high-intensity lights to help teachers who may be sufferers. There is evidence that exposure to high-intensity light for a few hours a day combats symptoms and lifts sufferers' moods.

Given how easy it is for weather to have a negative effect on our mood at work, our productivity and even our desire to be there, it is astonishing how little attention schools pay to ensuring the work environment can be adapted to take account of it - particularly in a country with a climate like ours.

A weather-aware workplace should be cool in summer, but warm and light in winter. It should provide easy access to the outdoors, as well as ensuring consistently high air quality throughout the year. This would protect emotional and physical health - and provide a good reason for going to work, no matter the weather.

Professor Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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