The dangers of sedentary work

Healthy living expert explains what workers can do to stave off the threat of heart disease, diabetes, and other serious conditions

The dangers of sedentary work

Think that occupational safety is only about risks around working at height or operating heavy machinery? Think again. In reality, the majority of the population have jobs that involve doing very little – and in many ways this can just as dangerous.

Sedentary roles are defined by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles as those where an employee lifts no more than 10 pounds and, additionally, the primary tasks of a sedentary job can be performed while sitting.

In office jobs, for example, sedentary workers are often sitting down for almost eight hours a day. And even those in more active work environments may have slowed down during the last 18 months.

Indeed, during the pandemic many workers have been stuck at home teleworking while other have been laid off.

Lack of exercise can have negative impacts not only physically, but mentally as well. In addition, those working sedentary jobs may still be prone to issues such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Blood circulation

But why exactly is sedentary work so dangerous? Numerous recent studies have shown that sitting for long periods can incur bad health outcomes such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even cancer.

If you are highly sedentary over a long period of time, this is bad for blood circulation. Humans need to move to eliminate toxins. And even just shifting positions at your workstation can help improve circulation, while this also has ergonomic benefits.

And while it may not be the easiest thing to implement as part of our work routine, taking breaks during the day can help, says Natalie Toman, Health Promotion Lead, ParticipACTION.

From an individual perspective, says Toman, those who take the opportunity to break sedentary behaviours at regular intervals tend to have better, improved blood lipids and blood glucose levels.

“They also have a mental benefit that helps protect them against depression,” says Toman.

From a mental health perspective, moving around and getting away from the workstation can also help occupy an employee’s time and energy. It can provide a great, temporary distraction so that when they get back to their workstation there is “a greater ability to refocus and move forward,” says Toman.

From a personal health standpoint, reducing sedentary behaviour through physical activity has a number of health benefits.

“But from an organization perspective, there is a lot of information out there that supports organizations that foster friendly and inclusive relationships with their coworkers which includes a level of healthy work behaviours through reducing sedentary behaviour and increasing physical activity."

In turn, this helps foster a healthy workplace culture.

Wellness culture

“This idea of reducing sedentary behaviour is associated with a more positive wellness culture,” says Toman. “The best way to do this is from a top-down approach.”

Engaging with leadership, who actively participate in health workplace behaviour and embody that culture help influence all the way down through an organization’s structure.

“It can be quite difficult as some people are working remotely in different environments, some are working in person. And so unifying your group in some sort of policy or action is probably the best way to help improve engagement,” says Toman.

As is “remembering that motivation has a strong influence on human behaviour change. And so adding a little bit of motivation, whether it be by celebrating or rewarding success, can be a great tactic to help move people towards the desired behaviour” she says.

Toman says that her organization prefers to use the term “fit break” rather than “workplace workout” because they don’t want employees to confuse the intentionality of reducing sedentary behaviour.

It doesn’t take a great amount of intensity to benefit psychologically and physically from workplace reduction of sedentary behaviours:

“It doesn’t take a great amount of intensity. It’s a low intensity effort,” says Toman. “You don’t have to sweat; you don’t have to get uncomfortable. It can be as simple as getting up from your chair to fill your glass of water or going to make yourself a cup of tea. It could be a question of going around the block.”

This is applicable for those working in an office and those also working from home.

Toman says that for those who cannot step away from their desk, “it could be as simple as just standing up and shifting from foot to foot for a little while or trunk rotations that are comfortable and easy.”