20/03/2015

By Colin Stuart- the Managing Director of workplace consultancy, Baker Stuart


If your doctor told you that a certain aspect of your lifestyle was increasing your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, it’s likely that you would make the necessary changes to avoid these risks immediately.

However, when many of us discover that such threats to our health are caused by the daily act of being seated – the dangers are often shrugged off, with the view that being chained to a desk is an inescapable factor of our everyday lives.

Despite the abundance of evidence associated with prolonged inactivity, very few organisations are actually addressing the issues related to sedentary lifestyles, regardless of the fact that workers are spending more time at their desks now than ever before.

A recent study found that those seated for eight hours of the day had a 24% greater risk of developing colon cancer, a 32% higher risk of endometrial cancer and a 21% higher risk of lung cancer than those who sat for four hours —regardless of how much they exercised. Furthermore, recent evidence shows that the root cause of the rising obesity levels in the UK is not due to an increase in calorie intake, but actually caused by the raised levels of inactivity.

Shockingly, the average time spent sat down at a desk is 7.7 hours – and this is before inactivity such as the commute or leisure time is added, which will inevitably increase the risk factor further.

Given that so many of our working lives revolve around our desks, making the necessary changes could easily be considered too difficult a challenge. However there are a number of ways in which we can encourage activity in the workplace- and some of these changes require little, if any physical changes to your working environment.

Walking meetings

Recent research from Stanford University proved that those who participated in walking meetings were significantly more creative than those who were in seated gatherings. Many organisations are already encouraging meetings on the move- for example, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have been great advocates of the walking meeting and Google have also been known to adopt the ‘walk-and-talk’ concept.

The beauty of walking meetings is that they can take place virtually anywhere- around the perimeter of the building, in the building (space permitting), on the street (although noisy traffic should be avoided)-in parks, on trails- or to and from a destination such as a coffee shop. The location of your walking environment can be chosen according to duration, number of people involved and the topic of your meeting.

Standing Desks

Since the risks associated with prolonged inactivity were revealed, sit-stand and standing desks have become more and more popular. Many standing desks are now available offering the worker various options -from electronic desks that offer both sit-or-stand positions, to walking desks with treadmills that allow you to walk and work. If cost is an issue, there are also various contraptions you can add to existing desks that electronically heighten the device you are working on, allowing you to convert your desk into a standing workstation with ease. The simplest solution is using spare wall space within the office to create touchdown shelves for staff to use whenever they wish, which encourages mobility and flexibility within the office.

Agile working

Introducing a policy of location independent or “agile” working may not be the sole solution to sedentary lifestyles, but it will certainly improve levels of mobility and movement whilst removing the culture and habitual behaviour of remaining at a single desk. Arming your staff with laptops and creating an office designed with activity based working environments, hubs, collaboration areas, that are not centred around fixed desk positions will also encourage a more mobile approach to working within the office, that will prevent staff from remaining in one single seat.

Seat-free break out spaces

Encouraging regular breaks will help promote movement and provide workers with good reason to get on their feet. Providing a well-equipped bar style break-out space with suitable facilities will help encourage regular intervals from sitting, which will also promote routine movement, thus alleviating the issues associated with fixed posture. Encouraging breaks has also been proven to relieve stress, improve communication levels and even relieve the eyestrain associated with long periods of viewing a screen. You may wish to remove or limit the seating in this area to promote standing, but remember to cater for this by adding high tables to encourage impromptu on-the-go meetings, interaction and communication. Providing a superior standard of coffee in this area will further encourage use of the space. You may also wish to consider barring eating at desks (or even the drinking of hot drinks), it sounds draconian but it will encourage staff to take regular breaks improving productivity, staff morale and interaction as well as benefiting staff health by improving mobility and reducing stress.

Making small changes

Enabling staff to become more active can happen by making the smallest of changes. For example, simply removing bins and recycling areas from under desks and placing water coolers and drinks facilities further away from workstations will encourage movement. Centralising print facilities on a floor will improve mobility and have the added benefit of reducing your printing costs. Removing chairs from some meeting rooms will change the way meetings function and promote further movement. Banning internal emails (so staff have to physically move to speak face-to-face with colleagues), and providing phone systems (mobiles or Bluetooth headsets) to facilitate workers to stand whilst on the phone will all provoke movement, and encourage new, more active ways of working.