Now that we’ve kicked cigarettes out of the workplace, the next challenge is tackling that other major lifestyle threat to our health – the physical inertia that’s become such a big part of the working day. While we can control couch time at home, the office is a different story – how can we find ways of working that allow us to sit less and still do the job?
Rachel Mulqueeney’s new routine in her office at Cancer Council Victoria is pointing the way. Thanks to a height-adjustable desk, she now stands up for part of her working day and when she schedules meetings, they’re frequently in rooms equipped with more of these desks that allow people to stand and take notes instead of sitting down. If there’s no standing meeting room available, she’ll often organise a walking meeting in nearby Carlton Park instead.
“As long as the group is small and the weather’s fine, walking meetings work really well - although it helps to have a scribe who’s good at walking and writing at the same time,” says Mulqueeney who’s part of a pilot program at Cancer Council Victoria that’s trying to put more physical activity into the working day.
“With standing meeting rooms, it can be a little tricky to get the height of the desks right when there’s a big difference in heights of people at the meeting. But most people like the option of standing because they’ve been sitting for most of the day.”
Mulqueeney is part of a movement that’s going beyond the usual ‘take the stairs instead of the lift’ tips for workers. Instead, it’s targeting the top, urging employers to make changes that let sedentary workers be more physically active. In its Healthy Workplace Guide, for instance, the Cancer Council NSW suggests that employers offer flexible work hours to help employees fit physical activity into their day, that they support physical activity breaks like stretching or short walks and provide secure bike storage for people who want to cycle to work.
Flexible dress codes make sense too. Biking to work with a business suit stuffed in a pack isn’t practical so it helps if workers can wear smart casual on days where suits aren’t strictly necessary, says Chris Tzar of Exercise is Medicine Australia which has produced Physical Activity in the Workplace, a new guide with a range of ideas that employers can use to get their staff moving more.
Based on the evidence that breaking up long periods of sitting may help cut the risk of heart disease and diabetes, this guide recommends employees stand up for two minutes every half an hour if they can - or for two to four minutes every hour.
These breaks can still be work-related, says Tzar. They can be used to discuss something with a colleague, for example, or to stand up and make a phone call – introducing extra long phone cords can make this easier.
“We’ve had some people in human resources say ‘but we can’t have people standing up all the time because it interrupts productivity’,” he adds. “That’s when I say ‘so your employees are entitled to a smoking break- but you’re saying they can’t get up and do something healthy.’ The irony is that they have a policy that actually promotes unhealthy behaviour.”
What’s more likely to affect productivity, says Tzar, is ‘presenteeism,’ meaning the loss of productivity that comes from people who turn up for work but don’t function well because of illness or injury.
“We talk a lot about absenteeism, but more work performance is lost from presenteeism – it’s estimated to cost $26 billion a year in lost productivity. Three of the four major causes of presenteesim are depression, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes - physical activity can help treat all three.”
Another way to get moving more is to join forces with co-workers and train for an event like a fun run, swim or community walk together. To find one in your area, check out the Physical Activity Calendar of Events (PACE) on the Exercise is Medicine website.
We’ve had some people in human resources say ‘but we can’t have people standing up all the time because it interrupts productivity’,
Is your workplace making it easier for you to sit less?