Explaining the impact of sedentary based work.
When you step into a manual work environment you expect there to be hazards that you need to be aware of. There are induction and training processes as well as other controls in place to ensure that we decrease our risk of injury in these environments. However, what if our offices are high risk environments too?
It may seem farcical, but with the plethora of emerging research on the adverse impacts of sedentary work to our health, the message is loud and clear – sitting in your office chair may now be seen as a high risk activity.
In the ever changing landscape of occupational health we are driven by precedence. Progressive workplaces are responding to the alarming evidence around the risks of sedentary based work and we may soon see the industry standards change to ensure that companies implement opportunities for more activity based work.
The Impact of Sedentary Work. What is the Evidence?
Contemporary studies are largely focused on overall sedentary behaviours, however the risk exposure for workers is a major focus. In 2008, 81% of Australian workers surveyed reported an exposure to sitting with more than 50% reporting that they ‘sit often or all the time’. Whilst ‘white collar’ occupations can be seen as more at risk, exposure to occupational sitting occurs across a range of industries and occupations.
In March 2016, Safe Work Australia shared a media release highlighting the importance of staying active at work following a literature review they commissioned from experts at Curtin University. “Overall exposure to sedentary behaviour (especially prolonged, unbroken sitting time) is associated with a range of poor health outcomes, including musculoskeletal problems, cardiovascular disease, obesity, some cancers and premature mortality.”
The risks extend to focus and alertness which contribute to the ever increasing problem of presenteeism. With mental health issues predicted by the WHO to overtake cardiovascular disease as the greatest disease burden, it appears that “higher levels of sedentary behaviour may also be associated with poorer mental health and increased risk of mental illness.”
Ultimately, the key mechanism of harm appears to be as a result of increased static postures, decreased movement, lack of postural variation and low energy expenditure.
So now that we have established that the risks are real, that begs the question of how much sitting is too much and what can organisations recommend to their workers?
Work Safe Australia recommends that sitting for longer than 30 minutes without a mini-break at work is likely to be detrimental to your health. These risks are even greater for all workers accumulating more than 7 hours sitting each day.
Some campaigns have presented sitting as the new smoking. In reality, the risks of sitting are more similar to UV exposure. Intermittent exposure may not be harmful, however prolonged and repeated exposure will increase the risks of harmful impacts on the individual.
What Can We Do About it?
It can be easy to shift focus on the overall increase in sedentary behaviour outside of the workplace and believe that if Australians increased their health habits and exercise their risk will be lowered. However, with many Australian sitting for the majority of their work day (as well as the commute to and from work), it appears that the recommended 30-60 minutes of physical activity per day is not sufficient to negate the detrimental impact of sedentary postures on the body and the mind.
The risks can seem daunting but don’t worry, there are many effective interventions that organisations of any size can implement to minimise the risk to workers.
The main goals are to decrease the overall accumulation of occupational sitting and to interrupt prolonged periods of occupation sitting. However, just ditching your office chair is not the solution. The ideal scenario provides workers with an opportunity to alternate between sitting, standing and walking throughout the day. This strategy promotes increased muscle activity, postural variation and overall energy expenditure.
A current trend being seen across Australian workplaces are sit-stand work stations. These are exceptionally effective in providing workers with the ability to break up periods of sitting based work activity. While modern workstations may be the gold standard to work towards, there are many other immediate controls that may be implemented to minimise the risk of sedentary work in your workplace.
There are also a whole host of tips for workers to increase their incidental exercise such as using the stairs at work, walking to work or chatting face to face with co-workers rather than using the phone or email.
There is ultimately a large economic benefit to reducing workplace sitting for both the individual and the organisation. Workers who increase their activity at work can lower their risk of associated illnesses and the financial burden associated with their management. Whilst the total figures are not yet clear, there is rising evidence that these interventions can lower the cost of musculoskeletal and mental health claims, not to mention the expense incurred through loss of productivity.
The workplace has become a major environment for health promotion and with many Australians spending most of their waking hours (and ultimately, the majority of their lives) at work, there is a large potential to not only change workplace practices through decreasing workers exposure to sitting, but also to improve their lives.
 NHEWS Survey
 Safe Work Australia
 Hamer, Coombes @ stamatakis 2014).
 WorkSafe Australia