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How to prevent the risks associated with prolonged sitting

The type of work done by workers in many industries is changing, and as a result, the occupational risks we face are changing too. Physical work is being replaced by sedentary work, which carries its own risks. Prolonged sitting is now the third most-frequently reported risk factor, cited by 60% of establishments. Since the problem is increasing, effective prevention measures are becoming more important.

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  • Is prolonged sitting becoming more prevalent?

While we tend to associate prolonged sitting with digitalisation and the rise of desk-based work, the problem was first identified as a risk factor as far back as the 1950s. Research carried out at the time found that bus drivers, who spent most of the working day sitting down, were twice as likely to have heart attacks as their bus conductor colleagues, who were active at work and climbed the equivalent of 600 stairs each day.

Since then, research has found that excessive amounts of sitting slows the metabolism, causing problems when it comes to breaking down body fat and regulating blood sugar. As a result, not only can prolonged sitting induce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), but also health issues such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancer and, in some instances, premature death.

Today, people on average spend over 9 hours sat down each day – or the equivalent of up to 80% of their waking day. 28% of EU workers report sitting at work almost all the time.  This represents a serious health hazard – some experts suggest that the effects of which could be as severe as smoking. The issue is most reported as a risk factor by the financial and insurance industries (92%), the information and communication industries (92%) and the public administration sector (89%).

Although the issue is often prevalent in sectors that see a high percentage of desk-based work, it is also an issue facing workers in other industries, such as including air traffic controllers, drivers, cashiers, assembly line workers, casino workers and other workers that lack control over how they work and when they take breaks are also affected.

  • Are there any guidelines on how long to sit for?

Countries across Europe agree that prolonged sitting represents a significant health risk and have published advice on how this issue can be prevented. The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs [1], the Belgian Ergonomic Society [2] and the Swiss National Accident Insurance Fund [3] are among those who provide recommendations on the maximum amount of time that employees should be sat for.

Reviewing the different guidelines, the following tips are recommended. It is healthy to ensure that workers spend 50% or less of their working day sitting and no more than 5 hours overall. Long periods of sitting should be broken up by stretches or mini-breaks every 20-30 minutes and workers should always aim to get up for at least 10 minutes after 2 hours of sitting.

It is good practice to sit less whenever possible and work in an active manner, so workers should keep rotating postures and changing positions between sitting, standing and walking. Keep in mind that the opposite of sitting is not standing, but movement. Finally, those working with display screen equipment (DSE) are entitled to breaks by law. Taking short, frequent breaks away from screens is healthier and more effective than taking longer but more sparse breaks.  

  • How should employers and workers contribute to prevention?

The key to prevention is the promotion of a dynamic, active working life that limits the time spent sitting down. Businesses should provide workers with the flexibility and the autonomy to adopt a variety of postures, manage when they take breaks (if possible) and vary their positions between sitting, standing and moving around.

Investment in ergonomic furniture on behalf of the employer is central to achieving this. Research has showed that the dynamic positions enabled by height-variable sit-stand desks can lessen pain for workers – 77% of participants mentioned complaints to the back and neck before using the desks, and 87% indicated an improvement afterwards.

Businesses should also adapt the company culture so that movement is a natural part of workers’ daily routine. It is recommended to increase movement through the promotion of mini-breaks and by ensuring the fair rotation of tasks between workers. By giving workers the freedom to manage their own workload and take breaks when required, businesses can help workers maintain an active and dynamic working life. Employers can also consider introducing stretching breaks into meetings to help break up long periods of sitting. Moving communal items such as printers and rubbish containers will also encourage workers to stand up and stretch.

Employers should consult with workers and allow them to participate in the development of ways to increase movement at work. Working with employees will help to provide insight into the prevalence of the issue within the organisation and will allow the business to develop an effective prevention strategy to tackle it. Together, businesses and workers can find practical ways to promote a more active working life.

With the rise of automation and digitalisation, prolonged sitting will continue to be an increasingly prevalent risk factor. It’s therefore crucial that businesses and workers recognise and prevent the problem together. For more information, visit the sedentary work priority area on the Healthy Workplaces Lighten the Load campaign website. You can also keep up to date with the latest news by following the campaign on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.