Businesses combat “the new smoking” of workplace health

Are you sitting down? According to research, “excessive sitting” is a major health risk. HC looks at Kiwi businesses giving their workers the option to stand.

Businesses combat “the new smoking” of workplace health
Sitting down all day has been described by experts as “the new smoking” in terms of its potential ill-health effects, while the World Health Organisation has identified physical inactivity as the fourth biggest killer globally, ahead of obesity.

Prolonged inactivity has been linked to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, muscular and back issues, deep vein thrombosis, brittle bones, depression and dementia.
According to Shane Bilsborough, a former health campaign ambassador and co-founder of the exercise challenge Stepathlon, office workers may have one of the most dangerous jobs around.

“The body of evidence is now overwhelming. Today’s sedentary office environment has a more far-reaching negative health impact than even the direst reports of just a few years ago”, said Bilsborough.

He added that in the US, some commentators are predicting that "excessive sitting" could be the basis for future workplace litigation.

The Christchurch law firm Rhodes & Co is combating the dangers of sitting with what could be one of the first legal offices of its kind in New Zealand.

The firm has moved into its new post-earthquake offices on Victoria Street and said the fresh start offered an opportunity to look at open-plan office design, as well as allow for partners and staff to stand while they work.

“It’s a new beginning and one with the opportunity to consider how design can improve how we work and the service we provide to clients,” said Rhodes & Co partner George Forbes.

Given the demand for privacy and discretion in the legal business, the firm’s architects, Context, had a good design challenge on its hands. Context’s solution included bespoke unobtrusive screens that allow in light, but shield work areas and deflect noise. And innovations like the sit-to-stand desks have had unexpected benefits, according to Forbes.

“Having the option to stand up on the job is great for our energy and concentration, especially when we’re working long hours to complete a client transaction,” he said.

However, while standing offices may be a rarity in the legal space in New Zealand, other industries have already begun to embrace them – and the evidence in their favour is rapidly piling up.

Sitting for long periods of time increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and death, according to research published in 2012 by scientists from Leicester and Loughborough Universities – even if people do regular exercise outside of work.

The study, published in Diabetologia, analysed 18 existing studies involving almost 800,000 people.

Each of the studies they assessed used different measures - for example more or less than 14 hours a week watching TV, or self-reported sitting time of less than three hours a day to more than eight.

The researchers say this means it is not possible to give an absolute limit for how much sedentary time is bad for you.

But Dr Emma Wilmot, who led the study, told the BBC it was clear that those who sat the most had a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease and death than those who sat the least.

"If a worker sits at their desk all day then goes to the gym, while their colleague heads home to watch TV, then the gym-goer will have better health outcomes,” she said. "But there is still a health risk because of the amount of sitting they do.”

Sean Walters, co-founder of recruitment agency virtualRPO, works out of an office which allows him and his staff to stand while they work and says it’s an option he personally uses for “about 90% of the day, every day”.

“Working in any industry that is client-focused, standing up improves diction, gives a strong delivery of the message you are trying to communicate to clients and most importantly, it creates a sense of energy in what you are doing,” says Walters.

“Phone calls would be the main activity I stand up for, but we’ll also have meetings or brainstorming sessions standing around a leaner, which is ideal because standing up means you are engaged and energised. Ultimately, you can’t switch off from a meeting when you are on your feet.”

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