Innovators: Is sitting the new smoking?

by Karl Young

Health factors in the workplace

Have a look at your desk space around you.

You are most likely slumped in your chair, with your back hunched over your keyboard. By the afternoon, you may even have a dull ache in your back. If you are reading this sat down at your office desk ask yourself: how long have I been sat down today? What about this week?

At Viking, we wanted to investigate whether people worry about desk work and its potential to impact their health, particularly within an office environment.

We surveyed over 4,800 office workers who sit at a desk for more than 2 hours a day. Latest findings suggest UK desk workers receive woefully inadequate training and support – which could lead to potentially widespread health issues.

These issues include:

  • 48% increased risk of metabolic syndrome*
  • 40% increased risk of obesity*
  • A massive 50% increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes*

Almost three in ten (28%) office workers who sit at a desk for at more than 2 hours a day have never been told by their current employer about how to minimise the health risks caused by extended periods of sitting.

When these findings are positioned against the potential 29% increased risk of early death caused by prolonged sitting* it strongly suggests that the country could be heading towards a health crisis – one that can easily be mitigated by increased employer vigilance.

The findings, from office suppliers Viking as part of a survey with YouGov, suggest the country is sleepwalking into an epidemic of health issues either directly caused or exacerbated by desk work and prolonged periods of sitting.

Survey results

The most concerning of our findings was that 86% of these desk workers think about the negative impact their working environment may have on their current physical health. This is quite a startling figure, and becomes particularly worrying when considered against the finding that three in ten (28%) had never been told by their current employer about how to minimise the health risks caused by extended periods of sitting and 13% didn’t know whether they have been given this information.

This suggests that a large number of the UK’s desk workers have no idea how to mitigate the problems caused by desk work.

A survey commissioned by Fellowes – a provider of office equipment- in 2016 found that a third of European workers suffer daily from ailments caused by computer work. They also found that 60% admitted their productivity and overall performance have been affected as a result. To compound these findings further, the survey revealed that 32% have taken an average of two weeks off work – potentially costing businesses across Europe €73bn.

Are we doing enough?

Health and safety in the workplace has come a long way over the last 100 years, and our nation has made great strides towards ensuring every worker can work in a safe and supportive environment. So, how have we got to this point?

Accidents, such as trips and slips, are very well covered by a wealth of preventative procedures and protocols. What our survey suggests, however, is that ‘slow burning’ issues, such as sitting, are less in the spotlight and, as such, may be falling under the radar.

Nearly three in ten (28%) of the desk workers we surveyed have never been told by their current employer how to sit safely for long periods of time, meaning a large amount of businesses may actually be breaching the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 act (as well as other legislation, such as HSWA 1974). This act states that employers must ‘provid[e] staff with the necessary training and equipment to do their job safely. In practice this means that staff should be shown how to use and adjust their chairs and equipment for maximum safety and comfort.’

On top of this, 37% of these desk workers worry regularly think about the negative impacts a desk-based working environment may have on their current physical health – with 17% thinking about it every day.

Interestingly, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 also states that ‘staff also need to be aware of their responsibility towards their own, and other people’s health and safety. It is important that employees notify their employers, or those responsible for health and safety, if seating is unsuitable, faulty or damaged.’ What the survey does not show, unfortunately, is whether the employees actually acted upon their thoughts, and if not, why not.

One potential insight into a employee’s motivation to follow up on their thoughts – or not – is the finding that a big chunk of these desk workers do not feel their employer is doing enough to help. Thirty-nine percent think their organisation or employer isn’t doing enough to ensure the health and wellbeing of staff is not negatively impacted by the desk and seating arrangements.

How can we make a change?

There are several ways that employers and employees can bring about positive change, and some are as simple as adjusting daily routines. Others require increased responsibility from both parties, and an increased awareness of what is expected legally from businesses.

Employers should make efforts to keep their staff informed and working safely. This should include regular reminders about best practice when it comes to sitting, viewing screens, and general desk work. Employers may worry about appearing condescending – after all, you’d think everyone knows how to sit, right? Sitting safely is an entirely different matter. Some people may feel comfortable slouching, but the truth of the matter is that they may be harming their posture, or their long-term health. And, as our figures suggest, a significant percentage simply have never been told.

Standing desks are an interesting solution, and one that is creeping into offices across the country. The idea is that a desk can be used from both a sitting and standing position, easily adjusted between the two throughout the day. Not only does this help an employee work in a less sedentary manner, it can also help to promote concentration and productivity.

The need for standing desks simply highlights the negative impact of a sedentary working position coupled with long periods of very little movement. Probably the simplest way to mitigate the ill effects of this is for employers to encourage and regularly remind their workers to get up once an hour and stretch their legs. This can be combined with useful activities such as walking to the water fountain, or speaking to a colleague in another part of the building instead of emailing them.

Encouraging employees to avoid eating lunch ‘al desko’ is also a great idea. Not only will it stop yet another hour being spent at the desk, it can also help clear the mind – making returning to work much more focused.

The Future

Standing desks are likely to become much more common as people learn more about the benefits of standing. According to GetEuropeStanding.org, 80% of those who try sit/stand desks want to continue using it.

At Viking, we hope that employers take up the opportunity to go above and beyond looking after their desk working employees.

 Offices and desk-based work isn’t going away – in fact it’s likely only to increase. Simply doing the bare minimum to educate your employees on how to avoid desk work related health issues is a ticking time bomb. – Gemma Terrar, European HR Business Partner at Viking

Making a positive change is not just a benefit to your employees – although that is a wonderful motivator – it can have a tangible influence on your business, too. We’ll be watching this issue closely!

How do you feel about desk work? Have you ever used a standing desk, and if so, how did you feel? Be sure to let us know over @Viking_Chat.

Survey note:

Survey was commissioned by Viking and carried out by YouGov. Total sample size was 4818 adults, of which 1,307 were UK employees who work in an office and sit at a desk for more than 2 hours a day. Fieldwork was undertaken between 17th – 21st March 2017.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Sources:

*“29% increased risk of early death caused by prolonged sitting” – Chau et al. 2013

*“48% increased risk of metabolic syndrome” – Petersen et al. 2014

*“40% increased risk of obesity” – geteuropestanding.org / activeworking.com

*“A massive 50% increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes” – Bullock et al. 2016

image credit: mnn.com

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Karl Young is Senior Content & Online PR Executive, Office Depot, United Kingdom. Viking is a global company, established in 1960 and now in 11 countries worldwide. Viking employs over 1,300 people in the UK with headquarters is in Leicester. Follow Karl @TheYorkshireDad

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