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Sitting down for hours endangers employees

19 May 2016
Man working on a laptop at a single desk in a grey room

In association with Westfield Health

Inactivity – including sitting down for hours at work – has been identified by the World Health Organization as the fourth biggest killer on the planet. It’s a modern-day crisis in the same way that smoking was 10 years ago, says Fiona Lowe, Westfield Health’s head of HR development and strategy

Although it’s been nine years since smoking was banned in public places in the UK, it seems a lifetime ago that small groups of people would periodically disappear from the office for their nicotine fix come rain or shine.

The health implications of smoking are well documented, but the drastic and deadly effects on health and wellbeing of not taking a break at all, are not so well publicised.

Research by Westfield Health revealed some startling statistics:

  • 60 per cent of British workers spent most of their working time sitting down
  • 51 per cent don’t get up from their desk at all, apart from toilet breaks
  • 55 per cent of us walk for less than 20 minutes in total on an average day, with the worst culprits being those who work in financial services
  • This degree of inactivity has been demonstrated not only to increase the risk of obesity, but also cause several serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It seems it really could be true: ‘Sitting is the new Smoking’.

And it’s not just office-based employees who are the culprits. If your staff spend much of their day driving or at a shop till, they too could be sitting down too long, and this sedentary culture is taking a major toll on employee health.

The humble lunch break may also be at risk of becoming extinct. While this is perhaps the only real break that many of us get, research shows that 62 per cent of employees are too busy to take a lunch break, 55 per cent eat their lunch at their desk and 16 per cent of us don’t eat lunch at all.

The crux of this is that inactivity could be affecting the wellbeing of your workforce. While it might seem that more time spent working would increase productivity, the chances are that this is having a detrimental effect on what is achieved.

Research by Westfield Health has revealed that 40 per cent of employees feel less stressed, more motivated and have a clearer head after having a walk and getting some fresh air for at least part of their day.

Reduce sitting down

To counteract this, employers can encourage their staff to take an alternative approach to their working day. This might be adopting standing desks, prescribing mini workplace workouts, having standing meetings, getting people to introduce more walking into their commute by parking further away or getting off the bus a stop or two earlier.

An approach taken by Westfield Health is to gamify this part of their health and wellbeing strategy – to introduce an element of competition, not only for their own staff but also for businesses around the country. The ‘Walking Lunch’ coincides with National Walking Month in May, and allows corporate teams to see how their levels of activity compare to others around the country.

It’s in the power of every manager to quash a potential epidemic of inactivity, simply by encouraging their employees to get up from their chairs and move. It’s likely that they will come back refreshed and more motivated.

In association with Westfield Health, the IoD provides members with access to exclusive health cash plans and health-related resources to help companies through the process and provide comprehensive guidance for HR professionals. 

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Headshot of Fiona Lowe Head of People Strategy Westfield Health

Fiona Lowe

Fiona Lowe is head of people strategy and development at Westfield Health, a not-for-profit provider of corporate health insurance. As a fellow of the CIPD, Lowe has worked in the field of HR for nearly 20 years and has a good working knowledge of proactive and successful absence management. For the past decade Lowe has worked with senior leadership teams to develop and implement the corporate strategy and deliver the people strategy.


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