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On your feet

Gavin Bradley, founding Director of Active Working CIC, explains why too much sitting around in the office is bad for health, wellbeing and productivity

You might have heard a popular new saying: ‘sitting is the new smoking’. Well, it’s not really. Apart from anything else, people generally have less control over how long they sit at their desks than the number of cigarettes they choose to smoke. However, there has been a rise in awareness of issues associated with prolonged and excessive inactive behaviour – particularly sitting.

There are risks to health when the average office worker sits for 10 hours a day, with 65-70 per cent of this inactivity taking place at work, and when over half that time is spent in extended periods of ‘binge’ sitting. Reducing time spent sitting at work has become a key message in the fight for healthier workplaces, which is why the Get Britain Standing campaign run by Active Working aims to raise awareness of the issue among office workers.

A substantial and growing amount of peer-reviewed data from around the world is being released into the public domain. At last year’s Active Working Summit in London, international experts shared their research, increasingly pointing to the conclusion that reducing sedentary behaviour in the workplace (especially sitting) can improve health and wellbeing as well as increase productivity.

Illness is not only unpleasant for the employees concerned, it impacts on the employer’s bottom line and even the economy at large. Sickness results in millions of missed working days and billions in lost revenue. Referring to a Financial Times report from April 2016, Dame Carol Black – expert adviser on health and work to NHS England and Public Health England – told the summit that UK workers are 14 per cent less productive than before the financial crisis of 2008. As a result, she said, we must look at ways of making people more productive.

Unfortunately, convincing businesses of the real effects of a sedentary working life and encouraging employees to get up and move more is an uphill battle. The consensus was that without management buy-in and leadership from the top, health and wellness in the office will continue to remain a nice-to-have.

According to Dr Benjamin Gardner, senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at King’s College London, there’s a basic misunderstanding: the sitting risk is a different issue from not doing physical activity. “We need to raise awareness and provide the clear message that we should be engaged in active standing, not sitting/standing still” he said.

As a movement, Active Working is gaining momentum globally, but it will take a holistic approach and concerted effort from all stakeholders – policymakers, office furniture manufacturers, architects, occupational health practitioners, interior designers, employers, employees and resellers – to bring about real changes in behaviour.

Educating office furniture buyers about ergonomic office furniture is essential, although it’s only part of the solution. In Scandinavian countries, so-called ‘sit-stand’ desks have been available for decades, but employees are still sitting for too long. In our experience, organisations who have properly educated their employees in the basic practices of active working see up to four times as much usage of their standing desks. Education is especially important in view of the cognitive psychology behind failure to take advantage of sit-stand desks already in place – humans are simply designed to be lazy and programmed to conserve energy.

Having studied the effects of different types of ergonomic office furniture, Professor Alan Hedge of Cornell University noted that there are varying degrees of musculoskeletal and productivity behaviours associated with each one. Standing up often and moving is what matters, he said, not how long you remain standing: “We have to educate companies and employees and teach them how to use these products properly. You can’t just simply buy them.”

Australia has recognised sedentary time as an emerging health issue and has taken steps to address the problem through several initiatives, such as The Stand-Up Australia Program of Research, and Safe Work Australia. Part of the Stand-Up research team, Professor David Dunstan, told the summit of four main factors which influence workplace sitting: intrapersonal factors (income, education, occupation), interpersonal contexts (workplace culture, social support for change), physical environment (office furniture, office layout) and policy and regulatory environment (flexible work patterns, sit-stand workstations).

The country also has shining examples of structures that have been purposely designed as activity-based workplaces, such as the National Bank of Australia and Medibank, both based in Melbourne. These buildings are hot-desking environments and designed to increase activity and facilitate movement within the premises.

Active Working commissioned the first global expert recommendations on standing time for office workers (with the support of Public Health England), published by the British Journal for Sports Medicine in June 2015. These concluded: “We now have international consensus from health experts that we should be moving or standing between two to four hours every day in the office, and that companies now need to take on greater responsibility in supporting this target or otherwise face the costs of reducing workplace health, engagement and productivity.”

The Get Britain Standing campaign, On Your Feet Britain, is now in its fourth year. On Your Feet Day is a workplace awareness and participation event taking place on 27 April 2018. Visit www.onyourfeet.org.uk

About Sarah OBeirne

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