This article was originally published in January 2020 and has been slightly edited and updated in December 2020.
The UK isn’t well known for its vast amount of snow over winter so when it does snow, it can really impact people and businesses; more so if they are not prepared for it. The amount it snows varies by location in the UK with Cairngorms in Scotland seeing 76.2 days of snow or sleet on average and Cornwall getting an average of 7.4 days of snow or sleet falling per year. According to the Met Office, most of the snow doesn’t settle, with only 15.6 days a year, across the UK, seeing snow cover the ground (although Scotland sees 26.2 days on average) and most of the snow that lands, lands on mountainous areas. It has snowed at least “a little” (according to Durham Weather Station) each year, somewhere in the UK, since 1875 and although it appears to be getting less each year, 2009-2010 saw a “very snowy” rating and prompted lots of studies on the economical impact of so much snow.
Snow affects transportation in a few ways, cold weather can affect engines, make runways, roads and tracks dangerous, cause blockages and burst pipes, collapse foliage, obscure signs and pathways and damage vehicles of all kinds.
With transportation affected, supply chains can be disrupted. Even if the end of the supply chain lies in an area with no snow, snow anywhere along that line can affect the businesses that rely on it. This could be anything from lorries involved in collisions due to bad road conditions, iced over electrified overhead cables stopping trains running, workers not able to make shifts, planes unable to take off and reduced capacity in warehouses.
According to the Met Office, the amount of broken bones and other injuries related to the icy conditions, increases when snow falls. Emergency services, already stretched because of winter, and now COVID-19, have to combat dangerous driving conditions which can put people’s lives at risk and supply chain disruptions can mean medicines and vital equipment aren’t delivered. This kind of extreme weather can cause deaths among the elderly, vulnerable or people with medical conditions. Although you might not think this would affect your employees in an area without snow, they may, for example, have elderly family members in locations that have been badly hit, and may need to check on them.
Mental health can also be deeply affected when it snows, according to Dr. John Forsyth, psychology professor at University of Albany, SUNY, sudden changes in weather cause stress on unprepared people which can exacerbate any depression or SAD symptoms. Cold snaps, snow and the cold weather can make people feel isolated and want to “hibernate” which further disconnects them from social activities, work and healthy habits like exercising. Studies have also shown that extreme cold can also affect “things such as memory, one’s sense of trustworthiness, and even creativity.” so Dr Forsyth recommends that anyone who lives with these conditions, prepare themselves in advance by focusing on ways they can keep control and continue with as much normality as possible. In this time of support bubbles, social distancing and restrictions on so much of our lives, especially in the lead up to Christmas, it’s even more important for employers to prepare for snow and make action plans with their employees regarding their mental health.
A well-known fall-out from snow is schools closing and therefore parents and carers will need to request time off to look after them. Either way this can cause disruption for a business that might already be short-staffed because of sickness, pre-booked holidays or transport issues.
All these factors have an effect on the economy as delays, disruptions and disasters cost time, money and resources to overcome. The 2009-2010 cold spell hit just before Christmas which left many shops either lacking stock or customers (or both) as people preferred not to risk the journey to them. Small businesses run by a low number of people can completely close if the employees can’t work, fresh produce crops can be destroyed and seasonal product lines unsold – all of which are damaging to the economy. In this article from the Guardian in 2018, Investec’s Philip Shaw, a senior economist, comments that although people might turn up their thermostats which is good for energy production, they will be spending more on heating bills and won’t necessarily be better off. In the same article, the Construction Products Association points out that projects are often cancelled instead of postponed causing huge financial losses that can’t be recouped and that research points out potential rail passengers won’t reschedule their plans, they will simply just cancel them. The Supply Chain Consulting Group announced that “the UK Big Freeze of 2009 lasted three weeks and cost insurers more than £14bn.”. Adding that, “the greatest impact was the disruption caused to transport between manufacturers, distributions centres and retailers which cost more than £400m per day.”. The same ‘Big Freeze’, according to the ONS, saw GDP growth fall from 0.6% in the third quarter to 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2010.
The UK hosts more than 4 million SMEs which is 97% of UK businesses and the Global Sourcing Association have found they are the hardest hit during a loss of productivity due to severe weather. This means these vulnerable businesses need to find ways of staying afloat and planning ahead for snow is a big part of that.
First of all, pay attention to weather forecasts. According to a study by the Met Office, Impact of Weather Information on UK SMEs, 80% of SMEs believe the weather has a moderate-significant impact on their business.
Forecasting the weather is a complicated process and relies on understanding present weather, in order to predict future conditions. Observations of weather across the world are recorded 24 hours a day and analysed alongside satellite images. Equations then predict what the weather will do next and it’s updated several times a day to give the most accurate picture possible. Heed forecasts and weather trends that not only affect the area your office is, but also your supply chain, suppliers, staff and customers. This will give you more time to prepare contingency plans but might also give you a chance to be proactive with produce demands or social media messages.
Talking about contingencies, write a snow/severe weather policy and ensure it is circulated to all staff in early November and again when bad weather has been forecast, making sure that new starters have seen it and understand, as well as seasoned staff members. Include how the company handles these kinds of situations, what the policy regarding pay and absence is, what staff need to do and how to stay safe. For example; you could include a list of winter equipment drivers should keep in their car, reminders to plan for longer journeys to work, advice for staff to create car pools or the guidelines in place for absence because of caring responsibilities. Whatever you include, getting the message out there is key to successful planning and management should the need arise.
A good action to take in advance is knowing geographically where staff come from on their commutes, and talking with them about how they plan on getting to work in snow, and what (if any) factors have affected them in the past. For example:
• Jane lives quite far away in a small cul-de-sac at the bottom of a steep hill that often gets missed by gritters when it’s snowing
• Bob cycles to work but in the past has received a lift from Ling when it’s been snowing
• Ling lives a good distance away but only drives on main roads that are always gritted, her journey just take a bit longer when it’s snowing
• Shelly and Aasmi both get a bus from town centre and haven’t had any problems in the past
• Terry walks an hour to work so although he sets off early, he is sometimes late when it’s snowing
Talking to the staff members and finding out about their journey’s to work will help with managing expectations and planning. By knowing in advance about Jane’s situation, you could ensure she has everything she needs to work from home in that scenario.
Think also about the nature of your business and different roles staff have. Have you been thinking about implementing cloud-based software but keep putting it off? Having it in place would allow staff to work from different locations very easily. Are the majority of staff needed at site in order for the business to function? Plan carpools or find out what staff have got a 4x4 and give them an incentive to offer lifts or let staff know you’ll pay them back for taxi fares if they can’t walk or cycle.
Of course, you also should be aware of who has got caring responsibilities, but not just for children. If bad weather hits suddenly, someone with an elderly parent might need to get groceries to them if the weather means they can’t leave the house themselves. It is possible that Ling from the example above, doesn’t really have a problem getting to work but her father’s nurse can’t get to his house in bad weather, and she might have to go and look after him. If that happens, she will not be able to give a lift to Bob and then you have two staff missing. So, you can see how knowing about this in advance would help with staff management.
The introduction of COVID-19 earlier in the year has given many businesses months of adapting to new ways of working, such as working remotely or through implementing new safety rules. This could be seen as beneficial for planning and managing winter disruptions like snow, especially if your staff are already working from home or can easily make that transition. In workplaces where employees can’t work from home, there is hope that social distancing and other health and safety measures to protect workers from COVID-19, will help protect them from other winter illnesses, reducing absence.
The colder it gets, the less comfortable working is and regardless of the location (office or warehouse), if you are keeping the area ventilated with open windows and doors, this will be uncomfortable for people trying to do their jobs. According to the Health and Safety Executive it is important to balance ventilation with keeping people warm so don’t go overboard and throw all the windows open every morning. Instead keep a couple of windows half open and avoid opening windows right next to someone’s workstation. As a society we’re constantly adapting to the issues COVID-19 throws at us so even though it has started snowing in some places around the country, it isn’t too late to look at your policies to double check what will be different this winter and how you can manage it in advance.
The key to a business successfully navigating through snow or other severe weather is planning ahead and having contingencies in place, with the most importing aspect being that messages are communicated clearly and in advance.