With so much focus on mental wellbeing, it would be easy to overlook the physical needs of employees and how they are catered for in the workplace. However, there are many physical conditions that can manifest as a result of the work environments we occupy and almost all stem from one cause: our excessive sedentary behaviours.
While mobile technology has removed the shackles of fixed-place working and employers have sought to give employees more freedom and choice in their work environment, there is still an over-reliance on being seated during the working day. Too much sitting has been linked with diseases such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and lung disease, not to mention a whole host of musculoskeletal disorders too, as our posture takes a hit. We also know there is a direct link between excessive sitting and depression, and research suggests it impairs brain function too, which potentially means reduced concentration and productivity.
As more is researched about the short-, medium- and long-term impact of our inactivity, it’s clear that we must overhaul our behaviours if we are to improve our health, happiness and consequently productivity. Many progressive employers have tackled this issue head-on and have worked hard to re-programme employees’ behaviours to take better care of themselves. Such initiatives have seen the introduction of standing desks, hosting walking meetings, encouraging employees to take phone calls standing up, hosting lunchtime fitness and wellbeing classes, setting timers to remind employees when to move, and even removing seats from meeting rooms. However, while all of these initiatives have the potential to make very positive changes, it is education which is needed in order to make the most progress.
Behaviour is complex and learned behaviour takes time to unpick and re-programme. Employers need to educate themselves and their people about the health and productivity risks of excessive sitting and make it as easy as possible to change those behaviours. In much the same way that change management programmes are put in place to support a merger, acquisition or arrival of a new technology, the same is required for employee and workplace health too.
Here are three key steps to help reduce sitting and instil new workplace behaviours:
1.Establish a sense of urgency with the team by explaining the risks to their health unless behaviours are changed and share the vision of what you’re trying to achieve. This should explain the benefits to employees as individuals and to the business as a whole. This can be delivered through an all-staff meeting, the company intranet or via line manager meetings. Make this a shared vision by encouraging teams and departments to work together to support the changes (be they in the workplace or through the introduction of lunchtime activities, e.g. running clubs) and put an ongoing internal communications programme in place to turn awareness into action.
2. Empower employees to make the changes required by giving them the right tools and spaces. Perhaps this means the staged introduction of standing desks, the use of timers to encourage movement at key points throughout the day or the removal of ‘owned’ desks in favour of short-term bookable spaces. As the path of least resistance will always be the most well-trodden, make the desired behaviour the default option: don’t ask employees to stop sitting in meetings, remove the chairs. This will make the new required behaviours become second nature much more quickly.
3. Celebrate the wins, however small, to encourage ongoing take-up of the new behaviour and consider how you can showcase the value it’s delivering. In the short term, this might involve incentivising compliance and celebrating the teams that have really embraced change. In the longer term, you will be able to quantify the financial value these new behaviours have delivered such as fewer employees experiencing serious health conditions, fewer days lost to sickness, or improved productivity. This data could be used to set your own wellbeing benchmark, something that will boost the company profile and appeal to investors and potential new recruits alike. You may also find that the new behaviours deliver other benefits such as improved internal communications and quicker decision-making as a result of a more mobile and active workforce, so be sure to share these wins too.
Many employers have already started to respond to the sedentary epidemic in the context of a broader wellbeing programme, which includes emotional and mental health, workplace design and physical wellbeing, by putting support systems, benefits and internal communications programmes in place. Inactivity is costly to everyone – to employees and their families, to organisations and their investors and to society as a whole. We all have a responsibility to get moving more and to actively look after our wellbeing and health. Behavioural change is the key and the organisations taking the most proactive and holistic view will stand to reap the biggest benefits of all.
To find out more about workplace wellbeing and how to write a wellbeing agenda, download our Workplace Wellbeing whitepaper, which is full of guidance and advice: