Stand up for your workplace health

Whose job is it to improve the health credentials of our workplaces? The state, in a bid to ease the strain on our overstretched NHS? Employers, who reap the commercial benefits of healthier, more productive staff? Or we the workers, for reasons of self-interest?

Perhaps because no one can actually decide how to tackle the health time-bomb of sedentary working habits – or has the energy to do so? – we are sleep-sitting our way into a crisis of (literally) crippling proportions.

The extent of the problem was laid bare at this week’s Active Working Summit 2017. Expert speaker after speaker ran through the evidence: nearly a fifth of premature deaths in the UK are due to physical inactivity; more than 50% of staff working for the NHS (the nation’s biggest employer) are overweight; the cost to the UK of poor workplace health is equal to the GDP of Portugal; fewer than half of us are disability-free by age 50; by spending seven hours plus a day seated we are suffering from muscle and joint issues that leave us frail and incapacitated.

The evidential case against workplace sedentary behaviour is clear. What researchers are focusing on too is how reducing those sedentary habits positively improves wellness and productivity. Early signs are good, and enlightened employers (and office design) encourage workers to stand up from their desks and get active around the office.

The way to create active working is move often and carry mobile tech, ergonomics guru Prof Alan Hedge of Cornell University told the Active Working Summit. Younger workers get it, when their workplaces make it possible (take a walk through tech-co intensive Old Street and you’ll see this in action).

As Mayo Clinic Professor James Levine put it: “Active working is the coolest way to work. Barack Obama, the boss of Nike does it, Google, Facebook. These are cool places to work and they don’t want staff to be in their seats in one place all day long.”

So why aren’t corporate health and safety, occupational health departments in the vanguard of the active working movement? Gavin Bradley, the evangelical founding director of Active Working CIC, believes we are being failed by the HSE with its lack of recommendations for the use of adjustable desks. Workplace OH specialists generally only get involved once an employee has complained of a condition such as back or shoulder ache rather than taking the preventative approach.

We’ve got it the wrong way round, agreed Dr Nicola Eccles of Halifax-headquartered CP Active: “We shouldn’t be asking why aren’t you at your desk, but why are you always at your desk?”

So is it time for statutory guidance on active working? In Denmark, employers are legally obliged to provide sit-stand desks. It’s the law. The desks are there. Few workers use them. Gitte Toft, Danish inventor of the Steppie balance board blamed it on the lack of training, explanation and encouragement. Push rather than nudge just doesn’t seem to work.

Public Health England advisor Dame Carol BlackĀ agreed that legislation was not the answer, preferring options such as a voluntary register for employers. “Legislative policy follows the population,” she said. “Health and wellbeing at work cannot be an add-on: it needs to be embedded in a company.”

My take on this message – and one that I pass on to staff at companies I work with on healthy workplace practices: you work here, you deserve better, the ball is in your court. If you want a healthier working environment (and who wouldn’t?), you’ve got to demand it. Ask for the sit-stand desk riser, take regular breaks, become your department’s healthy workplace champion, put up posters, challenge your manager, stop eating lunch at your desk.

As Peter Brogan of the BIFM suggested at the Active Working Summit, the question that needs to get answered is: “Does your board even have a workplace strategy?”

Kickstart your healthy workplace campaign by signing up your team/department/company for On Your Feet Britain Day April 28, 2017: thousands are already signed up for a day of activity in the workplace in a bid to encourage the nation to #sitless #movemore, organised by Active Working CIC.