Over the past 50 years there has been a shift from active to more sedentary job tasks with a steady decline in energy expenditure at work as sedentary occupations have increased from 50% to 80% of all work. The negative impact of this change is slowly making its way into our daily lives. Instead of aches and pains from heavy lifting and manual work, our morbidity is increasing because of inactivity.
Unfortunately, from a research perspective this is old news. A landmark study completed in 1953 compared coronary heart disease of conductors and drivers of double-decker buses. The drivers spent almost the whole day seated and driving while the conductors were consistently on their feet moving up and down the bus steps. The most sedentary of the bus drivers had double the risk of coronary heart disease compared to the most active conductors. As far back as the 1600’s aches and pains from clerks and cobblers constantly sitting were documented by the Italian physician Bernardo Ramazzini, in his book De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Disease of Workers).
The role of getting up and moving around plays a huge role in our overall wellness. This non‐exercise activity of moving around at work and home is being greatly reduced in our daily routines because of technology and sedentary jobs. Research shows our bodies are changing because of a decrease in movement throughout the day - our risk of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and cardiovascular disease appear to be on the rise because of our sedentary work habits and life styles.
As this perfect storm brews, employers are scrambling to find solutions to reduce their exposure to declining health in the work place. A plethora of products and information has hit the market. Sit/stand work stations, ball chairs, treadmill desks, personal activity trackers, standing apps, and “sitting is the new smoking” are the things we hear and see in the news. As an employer it is hard to figure out what is credible and actually has a benefit.
This new awareness of sit/stand workstations is promising but there needs to be a larger strategy to reduce sedentary behavior in the workplace. Standing is just as static as sitting. But it is the ability to change position that creates the opportunity for wellness at the desk. Dr. Jack Dennerlein, PhD. Professor, Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says we need to look beyond the office physical plan to a much broader approach addressing policies, programs, and practices to combat the sedentary workplace.
Our challenge as employers is to educate our employees and make them aware of these trends and separate the marketing chaff from the substantive solutions. In the long run, transitioning a sedentary office to an active, dynamic work environment should be the goal. Current research is helping change the attitude of sitting and sedentary work. For an employer the commitment to change is an investment with the goal of a positive return. For the employee the change will improve their health and quality (and quantity) of life.
For more information related to ergonomics in the workplace, check out previous Safety Net posts by searching “ergonomics” or “sit stand”. OSHA provides a Computer Workstations eTool with helpful guidelines for office setup, and MEMIC policyholders can also access a wealth of information including professional workstation evaluations within the MEMIC Safety Director.
(Thanks to all our readers who nominated MEMIC Safety Net as one of the best blogs in the field of workers' comp, we are now ranked as one of the top two safety/prevention blogs!)