Office headsets can obviously make your job easier by letting you use both hands to type instead of using one to hold the phone up. But can they really be beneficial to your health?
In Dr. Richard Yonge's Movement in the Workplace — Ideas for Boosting Health and Profits, he highlights the importance of movement throughout the day to remain in good health. This is where our product comes in to swoop in and save the day.
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Movement in the Workplace — Ideas for Boosting Health and Profits
Richard Yonge, PhD
It is widely assumed that high productivity at work, especially in offices, is dependent on keeping employees seated at their workstations. However there is increasing evidence that prolonged physical inactivity is not just bad for health, it is also bad for the bottom line.
Health risks and costs of workplace inactivity
Medical research has long demonstrated that physical inactivity is a key risk factor for many degenerative diseases. Indeed, the iconic study that first demonstrated a clear link between heart disease and sedentary behavior at work, by comparing the health records of London bus drivers with bus conductors (ticket-takers), was published nearly 60 years ago. Since then, researchers have repeatedly confirmed that, in addition to heart disease, physical inactivity is a major contributor to:
- deep vein thrombosis
- chronic back pain
- colon and other cancers
- Alzheimer's disease
- digestive disorders
Collectively these "diseases of inactivity" have been traditionally thought of as "diseases of aging," since in the past eras the people with those problems were the individuals most likely to be inactive. More recently, the term "diseases of obesity" has come into widespread use as sedentary behavior has become endemic to all age groups in many Western societies, and obesity is its most obvious symptom. This is despite evidence that sedentary individuals of normal weight are also at greatly increased risk.
The costs of treating these diseases are extremely high, estimated to be around $150 billion per year in the U.S. alone. U.S. businesses bear much of this burden through extending health benefits to their employees. Even though many individuals may remain disease free while employed, the shift in health care costs in recent years to treating the early symptoms and risk factors for future, potential diseases means businesses are harder hit than ever. Many Americans, by their middle years, take routine medications to treat the effects of inactivity on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, bone density, and digestive disorders without addressing the underlying cause.
Inactivity as a way of life in the U.S.
It is ironic that the last 60 years have seen both an explosion of medical research into the health risks associated with inactivity and a gradual shift to a more sedentary way of life in the U.S. built around the automobile, the television, and the computer. At the same time, the London double-decker buses that original study have seen their physically active, healthy conductors replaced by sedentary driver/ticket-takers.
The automobile now dominates most American lives. To the generations before the advent of the automobile, walking was a natural part of daily activities, but nowadays it is common for adult Americans to get less than a total of 30 minutes of walking throughout the day. In our grandparents' day there were no gyms, but obesity was a rarity; now gyms are everywhere and two-thirds of the population is overweight or obese.
Modern residential communities are routinely built without sidewalks on the assumption that everyone will drive to the mall or town center for all their needs. For workers, a daily one- or two-hour commute at the wheel of a slow-moving car has become the norm, where in the past times a walk to the bus or train station would have been a more usual start to the work day.
Television has come to be the main source of entertainment for most Americans, resulting in an exponential increase over the last fifty years in the amount of sedentary leisure time — with particularly dire consequences for children.
The computer has transformed the workplace, virtually eliminating the need for work-related physical activity for most Americans. Once at work, the daily routine often involves no more movement than a few short trips to the coffee machine or bathroom. Even 10 or 15 years ago office employees would routinely take documents to other parts of the building for someone else's attention — an activity that has been replaced by the click of a mouse.
Europeans have similar problems brought about by changes in the workplace, but they have cities and towns that were mostly built before the invention of the automobile. Consequently, they have higher rates of walking and cycling, and lower car ownership rates than the U.S. The result is that they have lower rates of obesity, they enjoy better health, and they live longer than their American counterparts. And on top of that their health costs are lower by a factor of two.
A new business risk - computer fatigue
A recent phenomenon is starting to change the way we think about the costs and benefits of modern office design: computer fatigue. In the past, businesses have been reluctant to sacrifice the apparent efficiencies of keeping employees at their workstations for the sake of possible long-term health risk reduction. Now there is growing evidence that there are short-term risks attached to sedentary behavior that businesses can ill-afford to ignore.
Ask most office workers or business owners how they feel after several hours at a computer (or sitting in meetings) and they will likely tell you they feel exhausted or lethargic and that they have difficulty concentrating. This is now a widespread phenomenon and research is starting to back up what we know instinctively from our own experience: prolonged sitting can lead to impaired cognitive function, poor decision making, slowed reaction times, and mood swings[5, 6]. Fatigued employees are less efficient, can make poor decisions, and have lower job satisfaction.
These factors affect work performance and in turn jeopardize the bottom line of any information-based business, particularly at the end of the workday. The importance of getting movement back into the workplace is now greater than ever.
A new approach to health at work
Efforts to overcome workplace inactivity are not new, as attested by 25 years of worksite health programs. These programs have emphasized intensive exercise, individual responsibility, and motivating behavior change through education, but they have been unable to stem the tide of sedentary behavior.
This approach has been largely ineffective against the workplace transformation that has accompanied the Information Technology Revolution. This is because education alone does not change behavior (if it did, there would be no overweight doctors or doctors who smoke), and motivation can only change behavior involving personal choices. For most Americans the decision to be sedentary is not a matter of personal choice but is limited by environmental factors like an absence of sidewalks, the physical layout of an office, or the insistence of a manager that they stay at their desk.
A new approach is needed to reduce Computer Fatigue by breaking up prolonged periods of sedentary work with short bursts of a low intensity activity like walking. It is important to make this change part of the normal business routine, in part because employees that are in most need of a break are the ones least likely to make a wise decision.
A number of techniques have been effective:
- strictly limiting computer times without movement breaks to one and a half or two hours
- using cell phones and telephone headsets to enable walking while working
- Task sharing between sedentary and non-sedentary jobs
- a campus approach to job activities
- replacing some intra-office electronic communications with face-to=face contact
- opening up access to stairwells
- banning eating at computers and desks
Incidentally, this approach is also effective in reducing the long-term health risks of inactivity and the short-term costs of medications for lower back pain, and to lower risk factors such as hypertension and osteoporosis.
Richard Yong is an Oxford trained physiologist specializing in environmental and industrial health. For more information on techniques for promoting health and productivity in the workplace he can be contacted by email at email@example.com.
© 2014 Richard Yonge
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