‘I do most of my work sitting down. That’s where I shine.’ Robert Benchley’s quip was the only thing I could find to cheer myself up this week when I learned that sitting down is, well, basically, killing me. In case you’re feeling smug because you think you have better posture than me, or more sophisticated taste in furniture, you can forget it. It’s killing you too.
Research from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University estimates that sitting for long periods of the day is costing the NHS £700m a year and could be the cause of 70,000 premature deaths. Since this grim statistic massively outweighs the numbers for accidental death in the UK, I might live longer by leaving my desk and taking up base jumping or shark dentistry. Having looked at the depressing detail there seem to be few important body parts that don’t suffer in some way from being stationary.
For the many of us who still regard ourselves as office based, it’s a wake up call to take a look at how we work and consider how some simple changes might be enough to stave off the prospect of early death. I’m pretty sure there is something in the British psyche that means mandatory corporate calisthenics or the domestic equivalent of baseball’s ‘seventh innings stretch’ won’t be met with much enthusiasm here.
However, there is a useful alignment with the Wellness agenda, particularly its focus on the individual, and the recognition of the strong connection between health and supportive, well designed work environments.
We’ve been working with a large tech business recently looking beyond the obvious ergonomic qualities of the workplace, exploring ways in which physical movement can be promoted without impacting the needs of business. Technology has been responsible for so many seismic changes in workplace practice and culture, it’s a useful test bed for newer ideas. Transpose two software engineers playing mid-morning table tennis out of their Old Street loft into a law firm and that might raise some eyebrows, but change doesn’t happen at the same pace everywhere.
We’ve been looking beyond stand up desks and walking meetings to see if there is anything about the design of the workplace that can encourage more physical movement. Here’s a flavour; core design that subtly masks the location of the lifts or makes them less convenient compared with the stairs. And stairs which are emphasised so they become highly visible from the office floor. Quirky space planning that encourages movement around the building and also promotes casual meetings between colleagues. Non-generic space, so the character of individual neighbourhoods encourages different journeys through the building. To be clear, this isn’t the introduction of wilful inconvenience or Ikea’s Hotel California approach to store planning, where you can walk for several days crossing a 20,000 sq ft floor, it’s about encouraging movement though variety and interest. Introducing diverse routes through the building encourages different journeys. This effect can be enhanced by locating a variety of facilities and food offers on each pathway.
Providing a variety of individual work settings may seem inefficient from the perspective of occupation density but seen in the context of the move toward task and team based work it makes sense from a business perspective. And it breaks the chain that attaches employees to a single workstation by encouraging more movement and positive interactions. After all, tech makes us mobile.
Ultimately increasing levels of physical activity in the workplace starts with culture and behaviours. Gyms, cycle to work schemes, team sports all help create a more active culture, but it rests with us, as managers, to encourage and educate, promote and support the wellbeing of our staff.
As James Brown - who you might consider an unlikely source for sound advice about workplace wellbeing - would say, ‘Get up offa that thing - and dance 'till you feel better.’