Is a Sedentary Workplace Killing Us? 2

Thursday, April 2nd, 2015
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To sit or to stand, that is the question.

There is growing evidence that a sedentary lifestyle can lead to chronic – and even deadly – health conditions. Much of the time people spend sitting occurs in the workplace, bringing with it a cluster of health and productivity concerns.

In a bid to get people on their feet, workplaces are responding with new sit/stand strategies, such as adjustable sit/stand desks, which encourage employees to vary their working position throughout the day. For the multi-taskers, a treadmill or cycle desk allows them to exercise while they work.

One company looked at deleting sitting all together.

Last year, Netherlands firm RAAAF [Rietveld Architecture-Art Affordances] in collaboration with visual artist Barbara Visser presented an installation entitled The End of Sitting.

The project was a conceptual office that housed no desks and chairs, instead offering a series of fluid geometric sculptures at different heights that allowed workers to stand on or lean against.

standing 1

While the concept would be quite a radical movement for the working environment, today’s worker could use that kind of alternative.

In fact, the Heart Foundation has revealed that Australian workers sit quite a lot.

“Over ten million Australians spend on average eight hours per day in the workplace,” said Michelle Daley, active living senior manager of the Heart Foundation. “Those working full-time in jobs that involve mostly sitting spend an average of 6.3 hours per day sitting at work.”

The Australian Healthy Survey 2011-2012 found that workers spent an average of just over 16 hours sitting at work. A breakdown by work sector is as follows:

  • Professionals, clerical and administrative workers and managers spent the most time being sedentary at work, averaging between 22 and 23 hours of sitting at work per week
  • Machinery operators and drivers were the next most sedentary, averaging over 19 hours per week

In terms of the proportion of work time spent sitting:

  • Clerical and administrative workers were the most sedentary occupation group with the majority (64 per cent) spending at least three-quarters of their time at work sitting
  • Professionals were the next most sedentary group, half of whom spent at least three-quarters of their work time sitting

“The least sedentary occupation group was labourers, who averaged just under four hours sitting in the last week, and 90 per cent reported spending less than one-quarter of their work time sitting in the last week,” Daley said.

Sitting can create a bevy of health problems.

“Emerging evidence links prolonged sitting with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and premature death, even among physically active adults,” Daley said.

In 2012, the Heart Foundation’s collaborative research project, the 45 and Up Study, found that adults who sat 11 or more hours per day had a 40 per cent increased risk of dying in the next three years compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day.  This was after taking into account their physical activity, weight and health status.

Recent research by Vic Health revealed that there are currently five million Australians who are overweight, 1.3 million of whom are obese.


Reduced sitting has been shown to have either a neutral or positive effect on productivity by various research projects.

A 2012 VicHealth study revealed that “overweight and obesity were associated with over four million days lost from Australian workplaces in 2001. The total direct financial cost of overweight and obesity was estimated to be $8.3 billion in 2008; $3.6 billion (44 per cent) of this was associated with lost workplace productivity.”

A 2014 study titled The impact of sit–stand office workstations on worker discomfort and productivity: A review concluded that sit-stand workstations did not cause a decrease in productivity, with some people becoming more productive in a sit-stand environment.

Further studies have shown that frequent changes to a standing position decreased fatigue and back discomfort, particularly among overweight and obese workers.

Standing Standing reduces health risks and helps productivity

Standing reduces health risks and helps productivity

Daley believes there are plenty of opportunities to incorporate standing in a work routine.

“We’d recommend reducing overall sitting time, as well as breaking up extended sitting time through out your day with standing breaks, going for walking meetings and walking around to your colleague’s desks rather than always choosing to email them,” she said.

“If you’ve been sitting for half an hour, you’ve probably been sitting for too long! But we don’t suggest to stand all day either, but rather alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day.”

“And, on top of that, being active for at least 30 minutes each day is still a priority for good health. Stand more, sit less, move more, more often!”

Melissa Marsden, director of design firm Marsden Collective agrees.

“While I’m not an ergonomic expert, I think there is a greater danger of sitting too much,” she said.

Sara Pazell, occupation advisor: human factors & ergonomics at Viva Health at work suggested, however, that standing alone is not a cure-all for the health issues associated with sitting. She recommends focusing on movement, creating a workplace activity plan and implementing movement-based occupational design.

Fad or Future?

Marsden views the sit/stand movement as more than a trend, one that will help create healthier workplaces.

“We spend such a large proportion of our time at work, we need to give our behaviors and postures in these environments far more consideration on how they are impacting on our greater lifestyle,” she said.

“If we can make small and relatively incidental changes to our workplace health, we are not only contributing to our personal health improvement but to the health of our organisations. By having healthier and ultimately more productive employees we are creating more sustainable workforces.”

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  1. Tim Jolley

    Whilst I am all for the traditional office desk, sitting for long periods and being physically inactive also makes workers' minds stale. Quite simply, you think more sharply and concentrate more effectively when you mix sitting with at least some standing or walking around.

    Added to that, many who drink lots of coffee in the office will find that if you have caffeine and are seated all the time, you will become very restless. That too, will affect the amount of work you get done.

  2. Katlyn Prs.

    Changing workplace habits could be such an easy fix for so many for the endemic health problems in modern society – from obesity and back problems and heart disease.