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08/07/2021

Sedentary work – an important risk to our musculoskeletal health

Our bodies are designed for movement and sedentary work represents a considerable occupational safety and health (OSH) risk, since it can lead to the development or aggravation of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and other health issues. Indeed, 60% of workplaces currently consider sitting as a risk factor.

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Image by Arpad Pinter and EU-OSHA

Why is it important to keep our blood pumping?

The risks associated with sedentary work can affect all workers who spend prolonged periods of time either sitting or standing, such as office workers, factory workers, drivers, cashiers or retail workers, casino croupiers, petrol station attendants and more.

The extent of sitting at work is alarming considering the health issues associated with sedentary work and prolonged periods of sitting. Inactivity at work can cause or aggravate MSDs, such as muscle stiffness and back or spine pain. It can also contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, certain types of cancer, mental health issues and even premature death.

Therefore, it is essential that workers who sit or stand for extended periods of time work with their employer to ensure that they can still get their blood pumping and oxygen circulating.

How can employers help ease the problem?

It is in the business’ interests to encourage workers to avoid prolonged periods of sitting or standing, since promoting healthy and active ways of working and preventing sickness in the long-term can boost concentration and, as a result, productivity. Many of the steps that employers can take are small, simple and cost-effective.

For example, employers can consider the layout of the working environment from the perspective of reducing sedentary work. By strategically positioning certain resources, such as printers and bins, in common areas, employers can ensure that workers need to walk across the office to access them. Employers can also provide equipment such as sit/stand workstations, ergonomic chairs that allow dynamic sitting, and cordless phones to give workers the opportunity to walk during calls.

Businesses can also consider changing company culture to inject more movement into working activities. For instance, employers can introduce mandatory stretching breaks into each meeting to give workers the opportunity to move and stretch their muscles. They can also give workers control over their workload, so that employees feel that they can take breaks when needed.

Finally, employers should consult with the workforce using a participatory approach in order to get their ideas and suggestions. The results of this consultation can then provide the framework for a concrete policy or prevention strategy. Not all of these solutions will be relevant in teleworking scenarios, however employers can still provide ergonomic equipment, encourage stretching and, most importantly, raise awareness of the issue whenever possible.

What can workers do themselves to reduce the risk?

Workers must also take some responsibility to keep active and avoid the health hazards associated with sedentary work. It is important that workers regularly change position between sitting, standing, and moving around. Workers should remember that the opposite of sitting is not standing, but moving. Workers should also consider taking microbreaks every 20-30 minutes to give themselves the opportunity to move, stretch and reset their posture. It is strongly recommended that, in addition, workers get up and move for 10 minutes after 2 hours of sitting.

Workers can also look for small opportunities to be more active in their daily lives, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking around while on the phone, and taking regular stretching breaks. Even while sitting, workers should regularly change posture and sit ‘dynamically’ by occasionally shifting their weight from side-to-side or setting the backrest so they can lean back. Drivers should stop to take regular breaks and get out of the vehicle to eat, stretch, make telephone calls and rest.

To reduce the risk of an MSD, workers and businesses should work together to avoid prolonged periods of sitting. It’s important to remember that our next posture is the best posture and that variety in terms of posture and movement is key. For more information, visit the sedentary work priority area section of the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load website, and look out for more articles on the topic to be published in the coming weeks. For some fun, entertaining and useful good practice guidance, make sure you watch Napo in the short film, ‘Keep Moving at Work’. Finally, don’t forget to follow the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for more news and information.