Over the past few years numerous well publicized research studies have concluded that prolonged bouts of sitting, as is typical in office based work environments, significantly increase the risk of numerous serious and costly health conditions including: heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity and cancer (J Levine, Mayo Clinic, Annals of Internal Medicine, 1/2015, Biswas, Oh, Faulkner et al). Additionally, studies show that sitting for several consecutive hours contributes to chronic back and neck pain, depression, weight gain and reduced mental acuity. In response to these studies health experts have recommended standing and moving every 60-90 minutes to alleviate the effects of sitting, and numerous solutions and tools have been developed to support in office movement such as walking meetings, movement reminder apps, standing desks and treadmill desks, to mention a few. Yet, with all the evidence of the human toll, healthcare and productivity costs and a flood of proposed solutions, little has been revealed about corporate America’s progress in addressing this health crisis. Are American companies investing financially, environmentally and culturally in changing the dynamic towards a more active workplace?
According to Gavin Bradley, founder of GetAmericaStanding.org and Active Working™, the majority of American office workers sit well in excess of 6-8 hours a day during work. However, Bradley does see progress occurring: “The first and most important trend is increased awareness that sedentary behavior is in fact a problem in the workplace. Our specific objective has been to make clear that irrespective of what wellness solutions are available to an employee, sedentary behavior is a very separate matter.”
According to Bradley, this was the driver for Active Working™ to commission, with the support of Public Health England, the first global expert recommendations on standing time for office workers published by the British Journal for Sports Medicine in June 2015. “We now have international consensus from health experts that we should be moving or standing 2 – 4 hours every day in the office, and that companies need to take on greater responsibility in supporting this or otherwise face the costs of reducing workplace health, engagement and productivity”.
Bradley’s organization will be holding their second annual On Your Feet Day for Great Britain and first for America and Canada on April 29th, a campaign that is expected to engage over 2,000 employers and 1,000,000 employees in active working movement activities throughout the day. Asked if On Your Feet Day has been a tipping point to adoption of office sit-stand solutions, Bradley replied “It’s more a starting point than a tipping point. We want employees to start somewhere and it can be fun and easy. Big problems are best tackled with small steps”
Get Standing’s primary mission is to get people to spend two hours of their work day NOT sitting. While the company endorses the use of standing desks, Bradley says there are other activities that can help people move for two hours during the work day such as: taking calls standing, walking around the office, holding standing or walking meetings, using the stairs instead of the lift, taking a lunch break. “Simple stuff.”
Bradley continues that implementing sit-standing desks is often a first route, but without education to support their usage and help develop real behavior change, employers and employees do not fully realize the benefits of the investment.
When asked to provide a barometer on corporate investment in practical office movement solutions, Rajiv Kumar, M.D., President Virgin Pulse, Chief Medical Officer Virgin Pulse Institute and founder of ShapeUp, which recently joined forces with Virgin Pulse, replied “I have seen a growing interest in providing tangible in-office tools for employees who want to combat “sitting disease”. This attention to prolonged sitting is a growing trend, and I have a lot of faith in its continued adoption. The fact is, unless organizations provide practical tools to combat prolonged sitting, nothing will change. No amount of educational material, articles, or tip sheets will offset the harmful effects of sitting unless environments are reoriented around movement and corporate cultures align themselves with health.”
Kumar noted that the growing popularity of ergonomics speaks to corporate commitment to building healthier work spaces, “We’re seeing a huge amount of interest in standing desks, treadmill desks, and in-office gyms that provide ways for employees to stand up, move, and be comfortable, all while staying productive and engaged in work. That said, practical tools can be simple and low cost. For example, signage can go a long way! Like reminding employees to take the stairs”.
Technology including wearable devices, mobile office exercise apps and social wellness tools are helping individuals stay mindful of prolonged sitting, according to Kumar. Such devices nudge users to move and in some cases lead them through simple 1-2 minute in office exercises. Such solutions are simple and cost effective to deploy and can complement ergonomic solutions.
Both Bradley and Kumar concur that investment in sit-stand solutions, devices and programs is only the first step in moving the needle against prolonged sitting. Instilling a culture of health is the only sure pathway to changing behavior. “As far as the employer is concerned, they need to create a culture which does not accept prolonged and excessive sedentary behavior”, says Bradley. Similarly, Kumar reinforced that “The first step in adopting a culture of health comes from organizational leaders and executives. You have to give employees the permission to move, step away from their desks, work flexibly, and incorporate their physical health into their work life if you want to move the needle on health outcomes. Any and all workplace exercise programs will fail if managers, leaders, and executives expect their employees to be at their computers every minute of every day. That’s why adoption and use of workplace well-being and exercise programs isn’t merely a question of promotion or marketing, it’s a true cultural shift. The fastest way to make that shift is to have executives and managers lead by example”
In assessing Corporate America’s success level in combating prolonged sitting, Bradley says “Since our Get Standing campaigns started in March 2014, we have seen penetration of sit-standing desks among office workers double from 1% to 2%. However we are still VERY far behind parts of Scandinavia where 90% of office workers have height adjustable sit-stand desks”.
So, is Corporate America making the grade in combating prolonged sitting? According to these key experts, the answer is they’re making headway and learning, maybe a C+ trending upward. There’s still a long way to go toward providing the workforce tools and instilling a culture of movement before earning an A and moving the needle on avoiding the negative health effects of sitting.