Men in suits spell air-con office woe

by Rob Gilhooly

It’s summer. Get ready for the big chill.

It may be 32 degrees outside and shirt-drenchingly humid, but for some people this is the season for frozen fingers, sore throats, headaches and a host of other nasty niggles. Reibo-byo (air-conditioning syndrome) is a common summer disorder in Japan brought on by overzealous use of artificial cooling systems. Particularly vulnerable are those whose work involves little physical activity, such as female clerical staff dressed to suit the outside conditions. It also affects people regularly passing between the natural outside heat and artificial indoor chill, such as sales personnel.

Sayuri Kono, a clerical worker in her 20s, is a typical reibo-byo sufferer. After sitting in an air-conditioned room for 30 to 40 minutes, cold feet and hands are the least of her worries. Kono also suffers headaches, diarrhea, abdominal and lower back pains and menstrual disorders. “I rarely have such problems at other times of the year,” Kono said.

Experts believe the syndrome is a result of biological stress induced by forced cooling of the body against its natural efforts to acclimatize to the heat of summer. This stress causes the autonomic nervous system, which is involved in body-temperature control, to go haywire and trigger the numerous symptoms.

Of course cooling of the body also occurs in winter, but that is not coerced by unnatural means.

Reduced exercise

“An indoor temperature of around 20 degrees is comfortable in winter because we wear thick clothing to counter the outdoor chill,” said Dr. Shin’ichi Sawada of the National Institute of Industrial Health in Kawasaki. “But in summer we wear lighter clothing to help cope with the outside heat and humidity.”

While an inside temperature of 20 degrees may briefly feel pleasant, it is not ideal for clerks sitting for long periods, particularly women who may only have a skirt to protect their legs, Sawada said.

Not surprisingly, reibo-byo was a hot topic in Japan in the 1960s, when air-conditioning became the norm in offices and elevators also reduced physical activity in the office.

While such work conditions are not unique to Japan, Sawada believes the syndrome may be.

“Japanese holidaying overseas often complain of the cold air-conditioning, particularly in hotels, while the local people do not seem to be affected,” he noted. Another example can be seen on international flights, where the first people to reach for a blanket are Japanese passengers. “The inside temperature is indeed cool and dry, but non-Japanese passengers seem comfortable enough in T-shirts and shorts,” he said.

In addition, research by Sawada suggests that Japanese people are more sensitive to extreme temperature fluctuations than non-Japanese, although physicians are aware of occasional cases of non-Japanese suffering reibo-byo-like symptoms.

To help combat the disorder, Sawada advises that the difference between the outside and inside air temperature should stay between 5 and 7 degrees during summer, and that air conditioners should be set between 25 and 28 degrees.

“Any lower than this can result in reibo-byo symptoms in the thinly clad, and any higher can be uncomfortable for those wearing suits and ties,” Sawada said.

Little oases

A 1998 study of 66 offices and stores by the citizens’ group Hiesho Gekitai VIVA found that only seven set their air-conditioning systems within the recommended parameters. The average temperature in the four convenience stores the group surveyed was around 22 degrees, while the four banks were around 23.5 degrees. “For customers, these places are little oases,” Sawada said. “But for employees working there, it’s the pits.”

Sensitive air-conditioning management will help prevent reibo-byo, but female workers should be prepared to help themselves, said Dr. Toshihiko Hanawa of the Kisato Institute’s Oriental Medicine Research Center in Tokyo. He advises reibo-byo sufferers to wear stockings, socks or fingerless gloves at work, and to have a blanket on hand to cover exposed legs.

Reibo-byo sufferer Kono said that a more liberal approach to men’s summer attire would help improve the situation greatly. “A collar and tie are simply not suitable for a Japanese summer. More casual clothing for all employees would help because then we wouldn’t need to have the air-conditioning on so high.”

Hanawa added that reibo-byo victims should also examine their diets, as cold drinks and food are not always the best way to beat the heat. “Consuming lots of cold liquids and foods in a chilly room is likely to result in some form of reibo-byo,” he said.

Drinking warm soups and herbal teas helps to warm the body’s core, but if the symptoms persist, Oriental medicine has long been shown to have beneficial effects, he said.