Sedentary behaviour has become a widespread issue. Colin Stuart, of consultancy Baker Stuart, makes radical proposals on how to adapt the workplace to get employees moving.
Discovering the health implications of dangerous habits such as smoking, overeating, or excessive alcohol consumption, usually results in an attempt to change our behaviour. Most people quit or at least reduce such habits when they come to understand the damage they cause. However, an abundance of research has recently revealed that a certain aspect of our everyday lives is causing potentially harmful effects, yet most of us continue to do it.
The habit in question is, of course, sitting or remaining sedentary for excessive periods of time, an act recently dubbed as “the new smoking”. While inactivity may not sound like a life-threatening habit, recent medical research by campaign group Get Britain Standing demonstrates how it could be significantly increasing the risk of obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, back problems, deep vein thrombosis, brittle bones, dementia and depression.
In fact, the World Health Organisation has now identified “inactivity” as the fourth leading cause of death, with an estimated 3.2 million losing their lives globally to the effects of sedentary lifestyles. So how do we change? What must we do to alter the motionless lifestyles that so many of us have become accustomed to? Well, firstly, let’s look at the areas of our lives where increased sedentary behaviour is most prevalent.
It is safe to say that the necessity to move in virtually all aspects of our lives has dropped dramatically. We now have fewer reasons to leave the comfort of a good seat or sofa than ever before. We can shop, play, be entertained, communicate, work and catch up with friends – all from a single screen and a comfortable space. As a result, the average person in Britain is seated for a total of 8.9 hours per day.
Look more closely at those 8.9 hours and you will find that, within that time, an average of 7.7 are spent at a desk in the workplace, due to an unprecedented number of Britain’s workforce being employed in low-activity occupations. So, if the workplace is where inactivity is most common, this is, without question, the space we must focus on to make the biggest change.
Get on your feet
While technology has, in many ways, simplified our working lives, it is also responsible for causing us to remain seated for too long; in fact the IT tools (Wi-Fi, smartphones and laptops) that are supposed to make us more flexible are doing the opposite – removing the need for us to move.
The modern worker can arrive at work, communicate with colleagues, read emails, engage in several calls, eat lunch, complete various different tasks, participate in a video conference and join in on a team discussion, all without leaving their seat. To change this kind of behaviour, office environments must encourage staff to occasionally stand. This can be done in a number of ways.
Standing for as little as two hours a day can increase muscle activity, leading to a positive and significant impact on health. Standing causes our bodies to constantly use the muscles in our legs, abdomen and bottoms, and this activity consumes sugar while having a positive effect on triglycerides (the main form of fat in the body). This means that standing regularly will reduce the likelihood of a worker getting diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or heart disease.
Some companies encourage standing with “sit-stand desks”. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes and many allow a worker to change from a sitting to standing position, by moving electronically. There are also various other contraptions that you can add to existing desks that raise the height of the device you are working on, allowing you to convert your desk into a standing workstation with ease.
However, while converting desks so that they offer sit-stand working options is a great place to start, simply demanding that your staff stand up for the sake of their own health is not the way to go. In actual fact, standing for long periods of time can also cause additional health issues.
It has been found that standing for lengthy periods contributes to long-term back pain, varicose veins and musculoskeletal disorders (Garcia et al, 2015). The key is to develop a balance. A good way of doing this is offering alternative spaces (such as touchdown points) using shelves, or stand-desks and facilitating them with power and Wi-Fi. This way, each member of staff can use these for an amount of time suitable to them.
Once staff have the equipment that offers an alternative to standing, you can introduce or encourage the use of timers (from the traditional hourglass timer to more advanced mobile apps) that regularly remind workers to spend a suitable amount of time on their feet.
Another way to get staff on their feet could include removing seating from meeting rooms. It might take a while for some people to adjust, but this can positively alter the tone of meetings, keeping them succinct and to the point.
You could also add high-topped tables in recreational or breakout areas that support and encourage standing gatherings, impromptu discussions, or standing workspaces for staff members on the move. Try a standing brainstorming meeting with several whiteboards, give everyone a pen and stand back and see how much more creative and interactive it is.
While encouraging staff to spend time standing up is a good way to combat inactivity, promoting movement in the office is also key and can be done in a number of ways. As well as improving the health of employees, short movements will boost energy, efficiency, creativity and productivity, helping to reduce stress and improve communication levels.
One way in which movement can be positively encouraged is by designing your office environment so that it supports your staff in terms of the task they are performing – as opposed to providing a single chair and desk for all activities. After all, a desk is not always the ideal place to work, yet in most cases, staff are expected to do everything from this space.
Such activity-based workspaces are comparable to environments such as libraries or schools, where users move around the building to utilise the space most appropriate for their task. This stimulates regular movement, as workers will naturally shift to occupy an appropriate space. Here, the office begins to represent a collection of workspaces that are perfectly designed to support specific tasks such as meetings, collaborations, contemplative activities, one-to-one discussions or simply isolation.
Café-style hubs, focus booths, lounge areas and recreational zones will support staff in this way with great versatility. Complimenting this design with an “agile” working policy will further improve levels of mobility and eliminate the habitual behaviour of remaining at a single desk.
Encouraging staff to drop bad habits and be more active in their everyday tasks is also a way to promote regular movement. For example, by removing bins and recycling areas from under desks, repositioning drinks dispensers and placing printers and photocopiers away from workstations, staff will inevitably move.
You may wish to simply enforce rules such as the banning of internal emails to encourage workers to get up and talk to each other. Or use the lift instead of the stairs. Banning all hot drinks from desks might sound harsh, but it will promote taking breaks, enhance internal communication and encourage movement. You could also ask that all telephone conversations be held on foot, or even in motion using bluetooth headsets.
Using technology such as KAM (small, durable devices that use technology to measure human activity) enables staff to read and monitor the duration, speed and intensity of their physical activity (regardless of how small their movements are), before turning this information into points. The use of these devices can be encouraged and incentives based on point totals and achievements could even be adopted to promote activity.
Taking breaks is vital – not only for movement, but also for stress levels. A study by researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin explored the psychological consequences of meal situations, looking at how lunchtime eating circumstances affected thinking and emotional states. They found that those eating at their desks were not relaxing with others, and were therefore more stressed, less productive and less creative.
A study by The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy also proved that one in five employees works through their lunch and half of those eat at their desk. If muscles are not used at all after eating, they do not take as much sugar from the blood as they should, which, in time, exposes you to the risk of high blood glucose and therefore type 2 diabetes.
Well-designed bar or café-style break zones or recreational spaces promote routine movement and interaction, alleviating all the issues associated with sedentary behaviour and fixed posture. These areas can also provide standing options by offering seat-free high dining tables, which will allow for impromptu, on-the-go meetings, making the area adaptable in its use.
A cultural shift
In addition to any changes that an organisation implements, when adapting a space to promote activity, a shift in workplace culture is critical. This shift must begin with the elimination of the cycle of thinking, “I’m working – therefore I need to be at my desk”.
It is also imperative that staff are involved and in agreement with making changes, therefore developing awareness of the damage caused by sedentary behaviour, and how this can be changed.
Overall, with a few basic changes, the modern working environment can adapt to support today’s worker, improving both their health and the way that they work. This is not just beneficial to the employee but to the employer as well, improving morale and productivity, creating more interaction and a “buzz” in the office, as well as reducing days lost due to stress and illness. First, however, we must acknowledge that, although technology has enabled us to perform every task without moving, it does not necessarily mean that it is the best way to do it.
Garcia MG, Laubil T, Martin BJ (2015). Long-term muscle fatigue after standing work, Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, November; 57(7) pp.1,162-1,173.
Sommer W, Sturmer B, Shmuilovich O, Martin-Loeches M (2013). “How about lunch? Consequences of the meal context on cognition and emotion“, Public Library of Science (PLOS) 8(7), e70314.
World Health Organisation. Health topic: physical activity