chronic diseases

Jul 3, 2012

Standing up for the sake of employees’ health. Literally.

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 a

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

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  



Leave a comment

2 thoughts on “Standing up for the sake of employees’ health. Literally.

  1. Rebecca Cook

    Posted on behalf of Craig Sinclair, Director, Cancer Prevention Centre

    Thanks Jamie for your comment.

    As a member of the steering committee overseeing this trial at Cancer Council Victoria, I’d like to clarify some of your points.

    Firstly, the trial of these desks is being implemented organisation-wide, across a range of departments and at all levels of seniority.

    Secondly, the trial is not a therapeutic intervention – it is a behavioural change trial to investigate ways to reduce sedentary time in the workplace. For this reason to assess the validity of the trial it is important participants do not have any pre-existing medical conditions. Obviously anyone with an existing medical condition relating to their work should be properly assessed so that we can assist them.

    Thirdly, we’ve implemented standing desks in three of our meeting rooms and are actively encouraging all staff to not only use them, but to leave their feedback on how they felt, so that we can monitor the impact on sedentary work practices.

    Finally, the trial of these desks is just that – a trial. We want our staff to feed back their experiences, including enablers and barriers to changing working styles over the trial. We welcome all feedback and to date, most of it has been very positive.

    Craig Sinclair
    Director, Cancer Prevention Centre, Cancer Council Vic

  2. Smith Jamie

    I hope that Mr. Harper continues to monitor this discussion. I hope to provide some unfiltered feedback regarding the implementation of healthy workplace practices at the Cancer Council, and provide a general case study of organizational pitfalls in implementation.

    Some background: I have a close personal friend who works at the Cancer Council of Victoria and who has some relatively minor health complaints which she attributes to sedentary office work. For some period of time she has petitioned for access to a standing desk, but was (as it was explained to me) rebuffed, initially on the basis of cost and OHS protocols, then on the grounds that a workplace trial would be initiated in the future, and now because there is a workplace trial and she was not selected to participate. To date, despite specifically requesting a standing desk, she has no access to one. Makeshift efforts to create a standing environment (placing a keyboard on boxes, etc…) were strongly discouraged/forbidden by OHS staff, though it was not clear what authority they possess. She’s not very confrontational and thus continues to sit.

    I bring this up because I’ve been hearing stories over coffee over the past couple of years regarding this exact issue at the Cancer Council. For a while, the general tone was one of frustration, more recently discussion of this matter has included resentment, as co-workers receive standing desks, and high level staff in the organization tell wonderful stories about a standing office environment in private meetings and as is the case here, in public forums.

    The net result of this is a degree of alienation. Efforts to create a health promoting workplace culture can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy, and heighten the class disparities within an organization. Recent newspaper reports ( extol ‘cycling as the new golf’, a relatively high cost, high prestige activity for upper middle class middle aged male executives. The CC is a very pro-cycle organization, including public advocacy and sponsorship, and frequent testimonials in staff meetings as to the merits of a long weekend group ride with fit and fabulous people.

    Cycling doesn’t need to be expensive, but then again, neither does golf. However, I think most would recognize that invoking fine weekend experiences playing Melbourne’s prestigious sandbelt courses might be seen as ‘promoting healthy behaviour’, but is alienating and ham-handed. Likewise, allowing a choice for a standing workplace environment need not emphasize disparities in workplace power, but certainly does when middle management rebuffs efforts by frontline staff to access same the health-promoting environment that senior staff speaks so positively about. I’ll be forwarding your article to my friend, and I don’t think she’ll be that happy about it.

    Of course this entire discussion assumes that workers are ‘office based’, and are high enough within the CC hierarchy to be invited to staff meetings and seminars in order to have their relative insufficiency pointed out, whether they be office managers, young researchers, fundraisers, or marketing staff. While janitors, tradesmen, and retail staff may not have ‘sitting’ issues, they may be expected to suffer from variety of socioeconomic and occupational risk factors for disease. I hope that the Cancer Council shows as much concern for their health as it does for those in the executive suite, and that moving forward, more emphasis is placed on workplace equity and creating an inclusive environment within the Cancer Council.

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