Taking a stand on sedentary behaviour in the workplace

More than 100 delegates attended last month’s ‘Health challenge Wales: Evidence for policy’ seminar, representing public health research, practice and policy, and occupational health and human resources staff from over 50 organisations across Wales. The aim of the seminar was to raise awareness of the links between prolonged sedentary time (any waking time spent sitting/lying and not using much energy) and poor health. The seminar also gave space to discuss the business case for reducing workplace sedentary behaviour, and effective strategies for doing so. In this spirit, delegates were encouraged to stand throughout the event, and at the end of each presentation, everyone was invited to join a standing ovation.

Why tackle sedentary behaviour?

Over half of the UK working population have sedentary occupations – most notably office-based jobs, where the majority of the working day is spent sitting. Data presented in Dr Stacy Clemes’ opening talk at the seminar showed that adult office workers spend on average 8 hours sitting down on weekdays, and that 63% of this takes place at work. Long periods of sedentary behaviour are associated with negative health outcomes. Importantly, there is increasing evidence (for example, from the USA and Japan) to suggest that these negative effects are not cancelled out just by taking exercise outside working hours or at lunchtime. However, breaks in sedentary time have been shown to be associated with health benefits related to conditions such as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Photo of speakers at the seminar: Speakers during the panel discussion. Lee Smith, Emma Adams, Sue Wing, Gemma Ryde, Stacy Clemes

Speakers during the panel discussion. L-R: Lee Smith, Emma Adams, Sue Wing, Gemma Ryde, Stacy Clemes

What’s the situation in Wales?

Sue Wing, who heads up the Healthy Working Wales programme, spoke about the successes of the Workplace Health Awards scheme for engaging businesses in Wales with health promotion. In 2013-2014, more than 800 employers actively engaged with Healthy Working Wales, and 17.5% of the working population of Wales were employed by companies who hold or are working towards a Workplace Health Award. There are many examples of workplaces in Wales that have successfully increased physical activity, through interventions such as lunchtime exercise classes or encouraging active travel to and from work. However, these interventions rarely address the long periods of sitting that make up many people’s work day  – which, as discussed above, are risky regardless of how much exercise is done outside working hours.

How can we make improvements?

Interventions focused on reducing sedentary behaviour are rare, and evaluating these is a relatively new field. Dr Gemma Ryde from Stirling University gave us a comprehensive overview of the current research evidence. The strategies evaluated include education on the risks of prolonged sitting time, computer-based strategies that prompt employees to take a break from sitting, and the use of standing desks or sit-to-stand workstations. The following were found to be key to the success of such strategies:

Taking into account individual variation in behaviour. Universal approaches may seem appealing when employees have apparently similar working patterns, but there may be a lot of variation in individuals’ behaviour and the reasons behind it.

Considering the acceptability of such strategies to employees. Standing desks in particular have been seen by many as the panacea for sedentary behaviour – but will not be effective if employees do not want to use them.

Taking a multi-component approach. There are many different factors affecting sedentary behaviour, which may need to be addressed in different ways.

Following this presentation, Dr Lee Smith from University College London outlined his current research study, ‘Active Buildings’, which aims to understand more about how workplace environments can be modified to increase movement during the working day. Creating ‘activity permissive’ work environments may sound complicated, but even simple modifications such as having to get up from your desk to be able to reach the printer/bin/phone can help reduce prolonged periods of sitting.

Standing on a chair: a possibly less office-appropriate way to reduce sitting time

Future research directions

There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of workplace health interventions in UK organisations, particularly those focused on reducing sedentary behaviour. Conducting robust evaluations such as randomised controlled trials within workplaces can be very difficult.  Emma Adams from the British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health provided some useful lessons from her experience of conducting evaluations of workplace physical activity interventions. She advised on the importance of measuring the impact of interventions on business-relevant outcomes such as absenteeism and productivity. During the question and answer session with the speakers at the end of the seminar, delegates discussed the importance of seeing improvements in productivity as well as health for securing employer buy-in for workplace health interventions.

Cultural shift

The need for a shift in cultural and social norms around sedentary behaviour was highlighted during the presentations and discussions. This was reflected in people’s behaviour during the event – whilst the majority of the attendees joined in with the standing ovations, only a few people chose to stand during the presentations. This made me think about how future events could work to change the cultural norm of listening as something that takes place sitting down. As well as helping people feel less self-conscious about standing up, the importance of a supportive physical environment was clear. For us, this might mean holding future events in a room with the space and facilities for people  to be able to stand and make notes, without blocking the view of those who do choose to sit. We’ve got our annual DECIPHer symposium next month, so maybe we should take that as an opportunity to try out some innovative strategies – discussing-new-research-while-running/dancing/rollerblading, anyone?


About the author: Dr. Jemma Hawkins is a Research Associate at DECIPHer and PHIRN, the Public Health Improvement Research Network.

The ‘Health challenge Wales: Evidence for policy’ seminars are run by PHIRN in partnership with the Welsh Government, runs a free quarterly seminar series. More information on past seminars, and slides from speakers’ presentations, can be found here. More on this seminar, and some of the media coverage it received, can be found here.

The next ‘Health challenge Wales’ seminar, will take place on 6 November 2014 and looks at future directions for peer support in breastfeeding.  Full information can be found here.

Imagess: Photo of conference speakers – Britt Hallingberg; photo of penguins – Laura Taylor, via Flickr