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Office workers around the world are collectively amassing countless health issues resulting from the ever-increasing number of hours spent sitting down. Ranging from relatively minor physical ailments like backaches and eye strain to serious issues like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, sedentary lifestyles can even put people at risk of life threatening conditions heart attacks and diabetes. The WHO estimates that physical inactivity and a sedentary lifestyle are one of the top ten leading causes of death in the world, and yet we seem to spend ever more time sitting down.
The problem has been identified by an increasing number of global health bodies, like the WHO and the CDC, and the evidence just keeps pouring in. But unfortunately, answers to the problem are coming in much more slowly, and employers are even slower to implement the solutions we do have. Whether vaguely aware of the stakes or knowledgeable and educated about the research, most of us do understand that sitting all day in an office is a health hazard. So why hasn’t office culture shifted away from sitting? The attention and concern that sitting diseases are slowly beginning to gather just don’t match the urgency of the issue.
It might be easier to shrug off employee health as a matter of individual responsibility, and the impersonal nature of some corporate offices might lend themselves to exactly this attitude. But having healthy office workers will benefit your whole office, not just the individuals! Caring about the heath of your employees is just good business. In fact, investing in your employees’ health is such good business that you can consider it an investment in your business itself.
Healthy Employees Are Better Employees
Leaving aside for now all the time spent home on sick leave, unhealthy people just don’t do the job as well as healthy people do. Encouraging your employees to be physically fit and healthy will bring improved focus and energy into your office.
It can be easy to assume that employees who spend all day at their desk are getting more done, it turns out that sitting down all day is one of the least productive ways office workers can spend their time. One study found that more than half of employees took two to five breaks a day out of boredom from sitting all day, while another 25% took more than six breaks. These kinds of breaks, taken out of restlessness, are obstructions to productivity, while intentional breaks can serve as just the opposite. Another study of office workers found that the most productive people spend just under an hour working, and then took a break for about a quarter of an hour.
To maximize productivity, most current research suggests that half hour windows are the ideal stretches of time to work sitting down before taking a break or switching to standing. Consider providing sit-stand desks to your employees or having walking meetings. The option to stand will help keep your employees healthier, but might also boost your business – one study documented an incredible ten percent increase in productivity when employees worked from a standing desk!
Think Of Employee Health Like A Business Investment
Health care is expensive, but it’s far cheaper in the long run—for employees, employers, and the general public alike—to invest in preventative measures to keep people healthy than it is to take care of people who have already fallen ill. On top of the indirect cost of lost work and productivity, sick employees are incredibly expensive!
A report by Diabetes Australia estimates that the average annual healthcare cost per person with diabetes is $4,025 if there are no associated complications.
Workers with diabetes also average two extra days off per year, adding to the loss of productivity. Because we know that sedentary lifestyles put people at risk of diabetes, it makes good sense to encourage employees to stand at work.
In general, increasing preventative care measures could save $3.7 billion in annual medical costs. Reducing hypertension by just 5% could save billions, as would reducing risk factors related to blood pressure and cholesterol by just 1%. Hypertension, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol are all “sitting diseases” associated with sedentary lifestyles. In workplace settings, it is estimated that every dollar spent on workplace wellness programs reduces medical costs by about $3.27, which amounts to more than triple the return on an initial investment.
These numbers are just an estimate of direct medical expenses. Indirect costs, like absenteeism, lower productivity and higher rates of injury and disability, can be double or triple this figure. Workplace wellness programs combat these issues as well, with one study estimating a reduction in absenteeism costs of $2.73 per dollar spent. Research from the Milken Institute suggests that even minimally reducing these risk factors can lead to a gain of more than $1 trillion per year in the next five years.
The data goes on, but the point is clear: employees sitting around all day are at a greater risk of preventable diseases that collectively cost trillions of dollars per year. Beyond these direct costs, the indirect losses might be even more expensive. Investing in employee health will save an incredible amount of money in the long run, for taxpayers and employers alike.
Start With Simple Solutions For Quick Results
Though big changes need to happen to solve this massive problem over time, implementing simple solutions to start with can drive quick and meaningful results. Even small lifestyle changes can have huge health benefits, because every step away from a sedentary lifestyle is a step in the right direction. For most people, time spent sitting down is on the rise, with the average person sitting for an average of 12 hours per day. Eight or even ten of those hours are spent sitting at work, which is both good and bad: it means there’s lots of room for improvement, and that it should be easy to find plenty of places in a work schedule to stand up for your health. We’ve provided a few simple tips to help in our previous post.
Studies vary in terms of recommended standing time throughout the day, but most agree that two to for hours, and up to at least half the day, should be spent standing up. But you don’t have to get there all at once! Even standing for just a minute or two at a time, every twenty minutes or half hour, raises the heart rate enough to burn calories and reduce the risk of cardivascular disease and diabetes. If standing for just a minute or two has such a profound effect, imagine what standing for longer periods can do for worker wellbeing?
Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine, because studies show that substituting a modest two hours of sitting per day for standing can help employees lose weight and lower their blood fat and bad cholesterol while raising good cholesterol. Increasing this goal by just an hour to three hours a day has been shown to have the same health benefits as running ten marathons per year.
When employee health can be improved so quickly and easily, with such a small initial investment, and such huge returns, there’s no excuse not to start making changes.
Health Should Be The Norm, Not The Exception
All of office culture needs to change in order to accommodate the major lifestyle shift that needs to happen to keep employees healthy. Employee health needs to be prioritized, not tacked on as an afterthought. With a few exceptions, corporations are failing to take employee health and wellbeing seriously, and this oversight is coming with consequences we can no longer ignore. It’s time to put employee health at the forefront of business and built it into the structure of an organization from the ground up.
Exactly what this shift entails will differ between organizations, but it needs to start with a change in attitude and assumptions. For example: what do you picture when you imagine a “productive worker” or a “diligent employee”? If the first thing that comes to mind is someone working at a desk late into the night, this is exactly the kind of assumption that needs to change. Instead of assuming that productivity is tied to the number of hours spent sitting, it’s time we took a more holistic approach and incorporated energy, creativity, and movement into our understanding of productivity.
Once we start to move away from assumptions about productivity and sedentary office culture, the shift towards solutions like standing desks should hopefully come naturally. Currently, employees who use alternative workstations like standing desks or yoga balls tend to stand out in an office, and fear of being seen as a “weirdo” can inhibit people from making healthy choices. When office culture shifts to incorporate alternative workstations and encourage healthy behavior, everyone will be more free to adopt a healthier lifestyle.