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.

Research from the University of Sydney found that people who sit for 11 hours or more a day are 40 per cent more likely to die within three years than those who sit for less than four hours. Those who sit for between eight hours and 11 hours a day are 15 per cent more likely to die. This was after taking into account the participants' physical activity, weight and health status.

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. 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. There is ongoing research in this area, which has confirmed the early research.

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.

For more information on the research, download these pdf publications, the result of a VicHealth pilot project: Reducing prolonged sitting in the workplace - An Evidence Review Full report and Summary.

A March 2016 literature review commissioned by Safe Work Australia and undertaken by Curtin University which showed that negative health effects from prolonged sitting are due to insufficient movement and muscle activity, low energy expenditure and a lack of changes in posture. The review showed that prolonged unbroken sitting time is associated with a range of health problems including musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, some cancers and premature mortality. Compounding this, health problems caused by prolonged sitting remain even if a worker exercises vigorously every day, highlighting that excessive sitting and physical inactivity are separate health hazards.

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.

The SWA review suggested that interventions targeting sitting reduction can substantially reduce occupational sitting, at least in office workplaces.

Legal duties of the employer

Under Section 21(1) and 21(2) of the OHS Act, 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 OHS rep, and with employees on the identification, assessment and control of risks.

Action plan for Reps

  • Consult with your members and discuss the issue to create awareness of it.
  • Carry out surveys to see if DWG members 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.

The SWA review proposed a range of initiatives to reduce prolonged sitting at work, including those focussed on the design of safe work systems via the work environment (physical and psychosocial), work tasks, work tools and the individual worker. Multi-component interventions targeting multiple elements of work systems appear to have been most successful.  A useful SWA 2015 publication is a handbook on the Principles of Good Work Design. It contains 10 principles that demonstrate how to achieve good design of work and work processes. The principles are all general in nature so they can be applied to any workplace, topic or industry.

The bottom line: 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

Last amended March 2016

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