With growing interest in sedentary workplaces as a focus for health promotion, Cancer Council Victoria has recently embarked on a project to reduce the amount of time that staff spend sitting.

It seems there may be some unexpected benefits to standing up at work, reports the organisation’s CEO, Todd Harper. Apart from the likely health boost, he suspects that his standing meetings don’t last as long as his seated ones…


Changing sedentary patterns at work

Todd Harper writes:

If you’re sitting reading this, maybe it’s time to stand up.

Spending too much time sitting in the workplace is emerging as a serious public health issue because of its likely contribution to premature mortality and obesity-related conditions. We also know that physical inactivity and obesity are risk factors for diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. More importantly this is likely to be irrespective of how much exercise one does outside of work.

A comprehensive evidence review, commissioned by VicHealth and undertaken by Associate Professor David Dunstan for Baker-IDI and the University of Queensland, suggests the problem is significant and may be increasing.

Consider that office-based workers are the largest occupational group in Australia accounting for more than 12 per cent of the workforce. This group spends an estimated 75 per cent of their day in a chair, not using the muscles that we use to run, walk or even stand and the very muscles that consume energy when they are activated.

And labour-saving technologies allow us to do more sitting – email means no more walking to the fax machine, getting up to walk to a colleague’s workstation is soooo yesterday in a brave new Twitterverse.

And the problems don’t stop at work. Even in a fast paced world that allows 24-hour access to work and social networks, we still find time to consume 21.5 hours of television (seated) a week. And unless you walk or ride, or catch standing room-only transport, here is another opportunity to rack up the sedentary time.

Todd Harper: standing up for health at work.

But while this might sound dire, the fact most Australians (of working age) spend around a third of their waking life at work means there’s real opportunity to use the workplace as a setting for improving health.

There are strong economic arguments for health interventions in the workplace too; in 2008, $3.6 billion was estimated to be lost on workplace productivity due to overweight and obesity, while musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 44 per cent of workplace compensation cases and up to 22 per cent of sick leave.

On the positive side, health interventions such as programs to reduce prolonged workplace sitting may in fact reap economic benefits through preventing chronic illness and improving productivity.

In fact the National Preventative Health Taskforce report in 2009 cited Australian research that found improved weight and metabolic effects in individuals who avoided prolonged sedentary time, interspersed periods of inactivity with breaks, and substituted light-intensity activity for sedentary time.

There are a number of interventions to reduce sitting times that have been tested in workplaces – such as increasing the number of breaks in the day, introducing sit-to-stand desks, and making modifications to the built environment to encourage greater movement in the day.

While we are still in the early stage of building the evidence here, trials suggest no drop in productivity as a result of the interventions and in fact, workers commonly reported feeling more alert and less sluggish as result of many of these initiatives.

As an organisation engaged in health promotion, Cancer Council Victoria must walk the talk, so we recently embarked on a project to cut sitting times.

The project involves engaging the entire organisation by raising awareness of the issue through the provision of information and promoting changes to the way we do work – encouraging standing (or even walking) meetings, and physical changes to the work environment such as piloting desks that allow staff to sit and stand, and adapting meeting rooms to accommodate standing meetings. Some of the interventions are being evaluated to determine their effectiveness.

We know the dangers of sedentary environments but where our knowledge is less developed is around understanding the effective and practical steps we can take to do something about the problem.

This is where the ‘lived experience’ of incubating organisations like VicHealth and the Cancer Council Victoria will contribute to our understanding of the motivators, enablers and barriers to changing traditional workplace sedentary practices.

Personally, I have spent much of the last four years alternating my day between sitting and standing at an adapted desk. Like any new form of exercise, this meant using muscles that I hadn’t been using before, so I had a few minor sore spots in my legs, symptoms that disappeared within a day or two.

I know I feel more alert when I have been standing and I suspect that my standing meetings are much shorter than my seated ones!

Modifying workplaces alone will not solve the problem of chronic disease, but they are a key setting for interventions.

We need to find ways to make workplaces see this as an obligation to their employees – putting the ‘H’ into OH&S, but also to realise the short and longer term productivity benefits.

We hope that our trial and ones like it will help to identify the most effective ways that workplaces can help to reduce inactivity and, in doing so, take a stand for the health of their employees.

• Todd Harper is CEO, Cancer Council Victoria

Photograph credit: Thanks to Sondra Davoren  


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