The impact on the human body from prolonged sitting has been well documented. But many employers have been slow to connect the dots between extended sitting and the corresponding effect on the health and performance of the organisation as a whole. This is of importance since the long-term health problems associated with sedentary work and lifestyles include a significant increase in the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, certain cancers, depression and muscle and joint problems.

In 2011, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, confirmed that British people sit on average for 8.9 hours a day – and that 70% of this is ‘sitting time’ at work. Since sitting more than 6.5 hours a day is considered the low end of the danger spectrum, there is good reason to be concerned that this sedentary working culture has major implications for the health and wellness of workforces causing some, like the well-known Mayo Clinic, to proclaim that ‘sitting is the new smoking’.

According to a new report from the Obesity Health Alliance, around 40 million adults in the UK could be overweight or obese by 2035. It’s a wakeup call for the UK government, which will need to prepare for the impact an obesity epidemic could have on public health resources. It also highlights the need for employers to acknowledge the role that sedentary workstyles and work practices have on health, and take bold actions to protect future enterprise productivity and performance.

Productivity takes a seat

According to Public Health England, prolonged sedentary working impacts the wellbeing of employees, irrespective of their personal level of physical fitness. But it’s not just the physical health of individuals that takes a hit.

The JustStand® Index study of employees aged 18 to 65 confirms that restlessness from sitting too long can prove disruptive to an employee’s ability to focus at work. Asked how they compensate for having to sit all day for their job, 39% of respondents said they indulge in ‘cyberloafing’ behaviours such as checking social media or searching the web. Meanwhile, 61% confirmed they get up and take breaks to relieve the restlessness from too much sitting.

When you consider it typically takes a worker more than 20 minutes to get back on task after a break, it could add up to a considerable loss of workforce productivity. Another looming challenge to productivity is increased absenteeism and long-term sick leave as worker health becomes compromised. According to the Minister of State for Work and Pensions, cumulatively, more than 130 million days a year are currently being lost to sickness absence in the UK.

The changing face of office culture

In the battle for talent, office culture is fast becoming a primary differentiator for recruitment and retention. But reshaping the workplace to appeal to potential employees needs to go beyond the delivery of new tools and technologies. Ergotron’s study found that 61% of respondents, regardless of their age, dislike or hate sitting all day. And that 84% would prefer to sit or stand at will.

Improving employee health and wellbeing by combating sedentary workstyles looks set to become a powerful workplace benefit. In February 2016 the University of Sydney released its findings from a comparative study of workers in a call centre environment. Compared to those using ‘regular desks’, participants that used sit-stand desks reported feeling more sustained energy levels throughout the workday.

In addition, an active office culture sets the stage for future wellness. For example, breaking up sedentary time throughout the day with an activity like standing can have an even bigger impact on energy expenditure than short bouts of intense physical exercise. As Dr. Michael Mosely found in his 2013 study of estate agents, those individuals that stood for just a few hours each day at work not only burnt more calories, they also had improved blood glucose recovery levels after eating.

Empowering workers to be more productive and engaged

Employers that take a stand on the issue of sedentary workplace behaviours are likely to reap multiple benefits: enhanced workforce productivity, reduced absenteeism, and the ability to attract and retain talented human capital. Businesses have many alternatives available to them right now to begin transforming their culture from standing meetings to sit-stand desks. These solutions, backed by the scientific research, are helping employers empower their staff to be more active at work, and reach their goals to increase overall wellness, performance and engagement in the workplace. These types of results impact the health and performance of the organisation as a whole, unlocking benefits for individuals and the enterprise alike.

By Betsey Banker, Vertical Wellness Manager, Ergotron