Employers have been warned to keep their staff active as often as possible in order to avoid long-term injuries which can speed up turnover, increase compensation costs for businesses and burden the public health system.
The warning comes in a new VicHealth report, Reducing prolonged sitting in the workplace, which argues more office-based businesses require their staff to sit in chairs for the majority of the workday but aren’t encouraging enough activity beyond that.
“We know that less healthy people are more likely to be absent from work, they have a higher absentee rate, and issues related to this can cause long-term problems,” says Baker IDI Heart & Diabetes Institute associate professor David Dunstan.
The report points out prolonged, unbroken periods of sitting down are increasing in Australian work environments. It also speculates the level of activity in workplaces hasn’t increased, as the overall level of athleticism among Australians has remained flat over the past several years.
The report notes the negative effects of sitting down too long – the growth of musculoskeletal disorders among employees who sit down, along with eye strain, increased risk of mental health and fatigue.
“This isn’t just about standing up,” Dunstan says. “It’s about being encouraging to move around more frequently, and not having everyone just sit around all day. We need to have more activity in the workplace.”
The report also highlights the economic disadvantages of workplace sitting, noting injuries such as musculoskeletal disorders cost the Australian economy $11 billion every year, and cost employers an average of $7,400 per case.
These injuries also account for about 15-22% of sick leave, the report says – but these trends can be reversed if workplaces promote more healthy activity.
“Office-based staff are the largest occupational group, with more than 12% of the working population based in offices,” the report says.
“This suggests there are at least 324,000 office-based staff in Victoria.”
Dunstan says there are a number of different methods employers can use to increase activity – and it’s not just about standing up.
“There are plenty of things you can do. If you look to countries such as those in Scandinavia, the availability of things like adjustable workstations there presents a choice, and cuts down on these sorts of injuries.”
Stand up at meetings
Standing up at meetings not only has the benefit of keeping everyone active, but research shows people who stand up at meetings tend to get their work done faster.
“The default position is to sit around a table and chat for two hours, but employees need the confidence to move around,” Dunstan says.
Talk to colleagues instead of emailing
Working in the digital age has created a habit where people will email others standing just a few feet away. Dunstan says you can get rid of that by walking over to their desk and having a chat.
“It’s the same as going to the water cooler, or whatever. Going over and talking to people instead of emailing can have a good effect.”
Stand up every half hour
Sitting down for hours can cause serious injury in some cases. Dunstan says standing up every half hour can reduce the negative effects.
“It doesn’t need to be vigorous, but standing up every half hour can have some great benefits.”