Sedentary work

Spending much of your time at work sitting down? So why would this be a problem?  

The technology now commonly used in workplaces has meant many changes to how we work. Many workers spend a large part of our working day sitting down, tethered to their desks in front of a computer screen. The average office worker spends about 80,000 hours seated in the course of his working life and 80% of those who work at the computer every day regularly suffer from health problems. Two thirds suffer from tension and pain in the shoulder and neck, more than half have back problems and around 45% suffer from eye problems and headaches.  Research has proven that too much sitting for long stretches of time can be detrimental to your health, regardless of how much you exercise.  

The use of technology has changed the way we work and play. With computers and the use of email, many of the reasons people used to move around the office no longer exist. Many tasks that used to be a routine part of office work - hand delivering documents, walking over to co-workers to discuss issues or share work - are now often done with a simple click of a mouse. No movement is required.

What's the problem?

Workers needing to spend long periods in a seated position on the job such as taxi drivers, call centre and office workers, are at risk for injury and a variety of adverse health effects.

The most common injuries occur in the muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, affecting the neck and lower back regions. Prolonged sitting:

  • reduces body movement making muscles more likely to pull, cramp or strain when stretched suddenly,
  • causes fatigue in the back and neck muscles by slowing the blood supply and puts high tension on the spine, especially in the low back or neck, and
  • causes a steady compression on the spinal discs that hinders their nutrition and can contribute to their premature degeneration.

Sedentary employees may also face a gradual deterioration in health if they do not exercise or do not lead an otherwise physically active life. The most common health problems that these employees experience are disorders in blood circulation and injuries affecting their ability to move. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT), where a clot forms in a large vein after prolonged sitting (eg after a long flight) has also been shown to be a risk.

Workers who spend most of their working time seated may also experience other, less specific adverse health effects. Common effects include decreased fitness, reduced heart and lung efficiency, and digestive problems. Recent research has identified too much sitting as an important part of the physical activity and health equation, and suggests we should focus on the harm caused by daily inactivity such as prolonged sitting.

Associate professor David Dunstan leads a team at the Baker IDI in Melbourne which is specifically researching sitting and physical activity. He has found that people who spend long periods of time seated (more than four hours per day) were at risk of:

  • higher blood levels of sugar and fats,
  • larger waistlines, and
  • higher risk of metabolic syndrome

regardless of how much moderate to vigorous exercise they had.

In addition, people who interrupted their sitting time more often just by standing or with light activities such as housework, shopping, and moving about the office had healthier blood sugar and fat levels, and smaller waistlines than those whose sitting time was not broken up.

What does this mean for workers?
Injuries resulting from sitting for long periods are a serious occupational health and safety problem and are expected to become more common with the continuing trend toward work in a sitting position. An important step is to recognize that prolonged sitting can be a health risk, and that efforts must be made to design jobs that help people reduce and break up their sitting time.

Legal standards 

Under the Workplace Health and Safety Act 1995, the employer has a duty to provide and maintain a safe and healthy workplace and safe and healthy systems of work.  The employer must also consult with the health and safety rep and with employees on the identification, assessment and control of risks.

Action plan for Reps

  • Consult with your workers and discuss the issue to create awareness of it.
  • Carry out surveys to see if workers are suffering any related aches/injuries.
  • Discuss how the work and the work procedures might be varied to allow more movement, more breaks and so on.
  • Raise this as an OHS issue with your employer or management rep with a view to introducing changes. It may also be appropriate to consider this issue at the OHS Committee
  • Consult with the employer to ensure that adequate training, information and instruction is provided at the workplace to all workers, supervisors and health and safety representatives.
  • Contact your union for further advice or information or advice.

How can changes be made to jobs normally requiring prolonged sitting?

The main objective of a job design for a seated worker is to reduce the amount of time the person spends "just" sitting. Frequent changes in the sitting position are not enough to protect against blood pooling in the legs or to prevent other injuries.

Five minutes of a more vigorous activity, such as walking for every 40 to 50 minutes of sitting, can provide protection. These breaks are also beneficial because they give the heart, lungs and muscles some exercise to help counterbalance the effects of sitting for prolonged periods in a relatively fixed position. Where practical, jobs should incorporate "activity breaks" such as work-related tasks away from the desk or simple exercises which employees can carry out at the workstation or work site.

A crucial part of any change is consulting with and getting feedback from elected reps and affected workers. This is particularly because there are always aspects of the job that can and must be tailored to the individual.

Thebottomline: workers should have the opportunity to stand up, move around and get off their backsides as frequently as they can. But it should also be remembered that physical activity is just one part of the equation for preventing the harmful effects of prolonged sitting. Other important factors include chair selection, workstation design and training.

More information

  • Up and down, up and down[pdf] from Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin (Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). To help address the health effects of a sedentary lifestyle, the German Initiative New Quality of Work has developed a booklet offering advice to workers who spend much of the day sitting for long stretches of time, to help get them up and moving - often. Basic information is given on how to incorporate appropriate work organization into the office workplace design including "dynamic" furniture to make it more motion-friendly. It provides guidance on how workers can alternate work postures, and offers dynamic solutions for frequent movement to help workers stay healthy. 
  • Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute -Physical Activity Research project, led by Associate Professor David Dunstan
  • Advice on working in a sitting position, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) 
  • Sitting Less: An Important Ingredient in our Recipe for Health [pdf], Alberta Centre for Active Living 
  • Too much sitting: A novel and important predictor of chronic disease risk?, British Journal of Sports Medicine 
  • The Science Of Sedentary Behavior: Too Much Sitting And Too Little Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine