Straightforward interventions could be the key to addressing what has been termed as the “sitting disease”. Katherine Selby explains.
With long hours, stress and sedentary behaviour risks rife in today’s offices, the World Health Organisation has ranked physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, after high blood pressure, tobacco use and high blood glucose.
Given that people spend most of their time sitting in the office, the workplace has been legitimately identified as a key root cause of the “sitting disease”. However, while workplaces represent a health risk, they also have great potential to bring about positive changes among employees.
Sedentary behaviour risks
Sedentary behaviour increases the risk of ill health and has been associated with a range of serious conditions including: obesity; cardiovascular disease; high blood pressure; depression; diabetes; and musculoskeletal disorders, to name only a few.
A precursor to these more serious complaints can be the common and unpleasant symptoms experienced while sitting at a desk for too long including: tension in the neck and back; bad posture; stiffness and fatigue; and poor circulation.
Nuffield Health trials a simple intervention to get staff moving
Nuffield Health, an employee health and wellbeing provider working with 60% of the FTSE 100 companies, is incorporating a new solution into its workplace wellness programme. The organisation is trialling FitStop at the head office of technology company Microsoft UK in Reading, where 40 employees are taking part in a three-month pilot programme.
Provided by Performance Health Systems, manufacturer and distributor of Power Plate whole-body vibration equipment, this is an example of a simple intervention to make employees more mobile at work. FitStop helps to tackle the daily symptoms that people experience after prolonged periods of sitting or from general sedentary behaviour. It is designed to help employees release tension in the neck and lower back, reducing stiffness and fatigue, promoting better posture, improving mobility and revitalising the body and mind. It can be used by all employees, regardless of age and fitness levels.
Employees take part in a quick series of movements on the equipment, intended to reduce the effects of inactivity throughout the workday. Each movement is performed for 30 seconds, meaning a single session can take as little as three minutes.
The approach can be used in the office, a break-out area or in a communal staffroom, and be used at a convenient time. Employees can do the programme in work clothes and use the touchscreen monitors to bring up an easy-to-follow programme.
It’s important to recognise that a sedentary individual is different from someone who is considered inactive. An inactive person is one who does not meet the recommended 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week.
However, individuals who do other forms of exercise are also at risk from the negative effects of sedentary behaviour. After just 90 minutes of continuous sitting, the body begins to show negative effects as gravity takes its toll on posture, forcing the body forwards and down. Electrical nerve activity in the leg muscles shuts off, calorie burn drops to one per minute, enzymes that break down fat drop by 90% and circulation and blood flow are restricted to the lower body. All this happens whether you exercise every day or do no activity at all.
Every employee is compromising their health if they sit down for long periods of time without a break.
Wellbeing on the agenda
According to the Health and Safety Executive, work-related illness and injury resulted in 28.2 million working days being lost in 2013-14, at a cost of over £14 billion. Employers simply cannot ignore the fact that they have a role to play in developing and delivering corporate wellness services for their staff. And it is no surprise, therefore, that employers are calling on OH experts to advise them on the best course of action.
The 2008 “Black Review” showed nearly 80% of employers agreed that spending money on employee health and wellbeing was a worthwhile investment. The intention is good and certainly a start, but to yield full results, companies need to create a workplace environment that makes good health decisions a path of least resistance. Strategies that are approved from the top down by the management and engage every employee are most likely to succeed. A cultural shift must take place in the office to bring about sustainable and effective change.
Rather than sign someone off for stress, businesses need to look at what caused the stress in the first place. Fixing that will help guard against that employee becoming stressed again as soon as they return to work. Giving people practical advice and supporting a physical change in behaviour in their work environment is also helpful.
Corporations are stretched for time and resources, so simple programmes that are easily implemented are most likely to succeed. Britain’s Healthiest Company research indicates that around only half of UK businesses have set aside budgets to deal specifically with “wellness”. While this budget allocation must surely change in line with acceptance and recognition of the need to invest in employee wellness, realistically it will be a gradual change. Cost-effective solutions that are accessible to all employees should be high on the agenda.
Occupational health advisers are well placed to advise businesses on the best solutions for their workforce. Research from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) indicates that government-funded OH advice services running in England, Scotland and Wales are well received and considered valuable.
The DWP’s occupational health advice lines evaluation showed that employers were reassured by the services and felt that the service assisted employees to return to work. They were also open to making adaptations to the workplace in order to retain staff. Clearly being fit for work is of prime concern and employers are seeking ways to act responsibly.
Larger businesses may have the luxury of a dedicated corporate wellness team or manager, while smaller businesses may find workplace wellness falls to the HR manager. Whoever is tasked to bring about change, OH support and structure can help them implement, track and measure success.
Employees want regular breaks
Research conducted by YouGov on behalf of Performance Health Systems revealed that 70% of office workers want their employer to support them in taking regular breaks at work for the sake of their health. The research also showed that 73% of workers sit at their desk without a break for between two and six hours and 62% of employees experience discomfort at work.
Younger employees, aged 18 to 24, experience the most aches and pains, with 71% of them stating this. By comparison, 56% of those aged 35 to 44 and 67% of those aged 45 to 54 complained of discomfort.
Healthy employees are three times more productive and studies show those who exercise more than three times a week have 43% fewer absences. The solution is to bring in something every employee can use – not just the fit and focused few who make the most of a corporate gym membership.
Sustaining employee engagement
A schedule in reception where people book their session each day will help people make a commitment and show others in the business who else is taking the opportunity. As with any new initiative, if managers lead from the front their involvement will encourage others to join.
Monthly questionnaires can be carried out to help engage employees with the programme, and the results used to provide feedback to employers as to what aspects are working well and any areas that may need addressing.
- “Sitting disease” poses a significant health risk.
- People who sit at work are at high risk – even if they are active at other times.
- Corporate responsibility now includes corporate health.
- Occupational health teams are being called upon to advise businesses.