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Avoiding the Desk Sentence – the dangers of Sedentary Behaviour

Colin Stuart, Managing Director of workplace consultancy, Baker Stuart, examines the dangers of long-term sedentary behaviour, explaining how changes to the workspace and company culture are vital in getting staff active.

Usually when we hear shocking news, its best to be seated – but for the following you may wish to stand. In recent years, research has proven that long periods of time spent sat down can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, colon cancer, heart disease, back problems, deep vein thrombosis, brittle bones, dementia and depression.[1]

It’s also been proven that for every hour (each day) that an adult spends sitting down in their life, the likelihood of developing heart disease goes up by 14%.[2] Furthermore, if you are seated for more than eight hours a day, you will also have a 24% greater risk of developing colon cancer, a 32% higher risk of endometrial cancer and a 21% higher risk of lung cancer, than a person who sits for four.[3]

These alarming statistics are the reason the World Health Organisation has identified ‘inactivity’ as the fourth leading cause of death, with an estimated 3.2 million loosing their lives globally to the effects of sedentary lifestyles.[4]

Sedentary-Behaviour-Avoiding-Desk-SentenceNow, consider that the average person in Britain is seated for 8.9 hours per day, and that the average time spent sat at a desk is 7.7 hours, and you begin to have a clear understanding of exactly where the problem lies.

The technology we use, paired with the ever-increasing number of hours we work, means time spent sat at our desks has naturally soared. Fortunately, by making a few changes to our physical environment, adapting our workplace culture and offering employee benefits- activity levels can be increased.

Physical changes 

When it comes to making changes to the working environment, the first issue you may wish to address is the one at the centre of the problem – the desk. In Scandinavia 90% of office workers are offered the option of using sit-stand desks, (desks that heighten to accommodate a stand position) but less than 1% are offered this option in the UK.

However, since the risks associated with prolonged inactivity have become more widely known, sit-stand desks are slowly being considered as an alternative. Some organisations have trialled desks with treadmills, allowing you to physically walk and work simultaneously – personally I don’t really see this catching on.

If budgetary constraints exist, converting existing desks by using readily available devices that raise your PC/laptop may be a better option, however the most cost effective solution is to add touchdown points using shelves with power (and possibly data) points as an alternative workspace, to encourage people to move to these positions and stand for part of the day thereby encouraging mobility and flexibility.

Promoting movement by design

In a study conducted by The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy it was found that one in five employees worked through their lunch and half of those ate at their desk.[5] Taking regular breaks is vital and the physical design of the office can be instrumental in promoting this. Breaks can be encouraged by creating recreational spaces or environments that employees actually want to visit.

Well designed bar style, ‘break-out’ spaces promote social interaction -as well as routine movement- alleviating all the issues associated with sedentary behaviour and fixed posture. You can make this area seat free, (or at least limit seating in the area). Small touches such as layout, décor, and the quality of coffee will be critical in getting employees to regularly leave their desks for this space. High tables will also allow for impromptu, on-the-go meetings, making the area adaptable in its use.

A place for every task

It is also important to look beyond the spaces used for relaxation when encouraging movement. Areas that support teamwork and specific tasks also lure employees from their desks. Providing a range of activity-based environments will underline the fact that your desk doesn’t need to be the only place you work. In reality, most roles demand a diverse range of tasks, so why shouldn’t we have a choice of appropriate environments to complete them?

Providing areas such as privacy / quiet zones, collaboration spaces, café style hubs, focus booths, lounge areas and recreational environments will encourage workers to move around the building depending on which environment is most appropriate for the task at hand. Complimenting this design with an ‘agile’ working policy will further improve levels of mobility and eliminate the habitual behaviour of remaining at a single desk.

Small changes = Big difference

Small changes such removing bins and recycling areas from under desks, repositioning drinks dispensers and water coolers at a distance from desks, will further promote worker movement. Placing printers and photocopiers away from workstations will also contribute, as will policies to use stairs over elevators. You could also remove chairs from some meeting rooms and introduce standing meetings to give workplace gatherings a new feel.

Healthy benefits

There are also a range of ways in which activity can be promoted cost effectively through workplace benefits. For example, you can encourage employees to take a break in their day to use the local gym by offering discounts or partially subsidised memberships – often the gym will offer discounts to your employees without you having to subsidise them.

Signing up for the Government’s ‘Cycle to Work’ initiative [6] enables you to help your employees make savings of up to 42% on new bikes and equipment for cycling to work. To further encourage cycling, you could add a secure bike shed, changing rooms, shower facilities, lockers and even a communal toolbox.

Walking or running clubs can also be organised for employees in their breaks and incentives for those that regularly participate can be offered. If you have the space, or a free meeting room, encourage employees to organise and run classes for yoga or pilates, or invite experts to come in and run workshops.

Activity through culture change

Educating employees about the health issues related to sedentary lifestyles is a good place to begin when making cultural changes. Consider introducing more flexible and agile working policies (and making sure they are properly communicated) to encourage your employees to move to the most appropriate work setting for the task at hand. Break the cycle of “I’m working therefore I need to be sat at a desk”. Follow this up by introducing new methods of working such as walking or standing meetings, which are a great way to encourage movement. These can take place in the office (providing the space exists) or around the perimeter of the building. Some companies are even designing landscaped garden areas for such outdoor walks. You can hike around the surrounding streets, across local parks, even to and from destinations such as restaurants or coffee shops. The number of people and topic of the meeting will dictate which walk will be most appropriate.

Active communication

Making a few cultural changes in terms of how employees communicate will certainly improve activity. In a recent survey conducted by the British Heart Foundation and Get Britain Standing, it was found that 38% of workers confessed to emailing a colleague sat next to them. By banning all internal emails, employees will be forced to physically move to ask each other quick questions. You could also make it policy that phone conversations and conference calls are only made stood up, using mobiles or blue tooth headsets.

Break it up

Getting employees to culturally accept that regular breaks are not only permitted- but essential, is highly recommended. Encouraging senior members of employees to routinely take breaks using recreational spaces will encourage the acceptance of breaks and the use of designated areas as productive places to work, meet or socialise in. Communicate the values of breaks and make the health benefits clear.

You may also wish to consider barring eating at desks, or even the drinking of hot beverages. Whilst this may sound draconian it’s effective in making workers take regular breaks improving mobility, productivity, employee morale and interaction.

The consequences of sedentary lifestyles are alarming, and appear to affect a huge number of Britain’s workers. By adapting our workplaces, reassessing how we perceive ‘work’ and re-evaluating the ways in which it can be performed, Britain’s workforce can make a stand against inactivity.


[1] Get Britain Standing Campaign

[2] American College of Cardiology: Study Bolsters Link Between Heart Disease, Excessive Sitting

[3] Christopher Snowden, Institute of Economic Afairs: The Fat Lie, 2014

[4] World Health Organisation

[5] Chartered Society of Physiotherapy:  “Al-desko lunches damage health and wellbeing, say physios

[6] Cycle to Work Scheme

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Tomorrow’s FM

Colin Stuart
Colin Stuart is the founding Director of Baker Stuart and has more than 25 years’ experience in workplace analytics and consultancy. With a passion for creating spaces that work for people but based on evidence not on conjecture, Colin has helped deliver significant cost reductions whilst improving business performance and staff satisfaction.
About Baker Stuart

We are an independent specialist consultancy providing a comprehensive range of innovative workplace strategy, workplace management and change, move management, project management and programme management services. Thinking about optimising your organisation? Get in touch with us here.


Offices in London, Manchester,
Edinburgh and Dublin
Offices in London, Manchester,
Edinburgh and Dublin
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