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Reducing Sedentary Postures in the Office Environment


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Organizations have increasingly acknowledged the need to provide a healthy work environment for their employees. Trends and studies show the American workforce is becoming older, more obese, and less fit; as a result, workers are experiencing more aches, pains and injuries. Today’s work environment has changed dramatically since the 1950s, as sedentary jobs have increased by 83%, while jobs involving physical activity comprise less than 20% of our workforce. New technologies, longer work hours, longer commutes, and other factors have led to a more sedentary lifestyle.

But it’s not just the time spent at work. U.S. workers spend considerable time sitting in cars or public transportation to get to work, where many then sit for protracted periods of time in front of a computer, on the phone or in meetings. Additionally, with the advent of paperless/green initiatives and/or printers at each work cell, office workers no longer need to leave their work stations and walk to a central printer. Likewise, instant messaging, online meetings, and other communication tools have reduced traditional in-person meetings.

Then, after their commute home, they relax in front of the television, browse the Internet, read a book, or participate in other sedentary activities. Americans average 13 hours of sedentary time per day, which cumulatively, is having a significant impact on our overall health and well-being as a nation.

Historically, ergonomists have helped employees be more efficient and healthy by improving comfort and workplace effectiveness. This precipitated a boom in the development of ergonomic-related products for office workers, including the ergonomic chair, ergonomic keyboard, ergonomic pen, ergonomic headset, ergonomic mouse, track ball, wrist rest, and foot rest. Ironically, by relying on these new-found ergonomic innovations and office creature comforts, office workers unwittingly became “less” active and in some ways more sedentary.

Ergonomics Improvements – Adding Activity and Reducing Sedentary Postures

So, how can organizations increase physical activity and movement while decreasing sedentary behaviors in the office environment? Armed with new insights on the impact of sitting, more employees are opting to stand to perform computer-based tasks. In the context of spinal pressure and increased movement, standing can be an excellent option, but it is critical that the organization develop a comprehensive strategy that addresses the risks and benefits of both prolonged standing and sitting.

New ergonomic trends are continually being introduced, often coined as the definitive “one solution” to satisfy employees. With access to a variety of publications that focus on the on the detrimental health effects of sitting, many employees are requesting the latest “ergonomics” inventions. But are they truly the end-all solution? And knowing that each person is unique, is it wise for organizations to invest in such “solutions”?

The table below outlines the different approaches for performing computer work and defines their intended use. This information can be used to develop a comprehensive, yet also individualized, strategy to minimize ergonomic risk factors and avoid the sedentary and lifestyle behaviors of concern. The first question that management or procurement may ask is, “What is the cost of such a device?” Therefore, the table also provides a cost bracket as well as potential challenges employers could face when maintaining or implementing each option.

Scenario Intended Application/Solution Cost Challenges
Sitting only To reduce fatigue when performing prolonged tasks, given the chair and workstation are properly adjusted. $$
  • Purchasing the right chairs for all employees, and certain chairs for specific applications (i.e., big and tall).
  • Getting employees to adjust the chair properly.
Standing only workstation To provide an alternative to seated work, reduce pressure on the spine, and increase movement. Should not be for all day use. “Hot Desks” provide employees with options of using a standing workstation within a department. $$
  • Does not allow for flexibility and standing all day has its own set of risks.
  • Effective for use among employees when offered as a temporary alternative in another location of the office.
Sit / Stand adjustable workstation To provide the ability to choose between sitting and standing. $$$
  • Provides flexibility when alternating between sitting and standing in your own work area.
  • Getting employees to actually alternate is a learning curve.
  • Users tend to spend more time sitting when rather than using the standing position.
Clamp on / Tabletop device for sit to stand To provide the ability to choose between sitting and standing. $$
  • Provides flexibility when alternating between sitting and standing in your own work area.
  • Getting employees to actually alternate is a learning curve.
Treadmill workstation To provide an alternative to seated work, as well as static standing work, as it allows for dynamic movement while working, burning calories to increase wellness. $$$
  • May not be widely accepted by everyone in the office. Impact on productivity can vary. Moving while on the treadmill may result in computer error initially.
  • Learning curve involved.
  • May be more effective in a meeting room or break room where concentrated reading or fine motor skills with mouse are not required.
  • Must identify which tasks are appropriate and productive while using this option.
Stability Ball To reposition the spine to its natural “S” shape while strengthening the core. Should not be used for the entire day as the muscle activation required to stabilize the trunk also increases spine compression. $
  • Best used intermittently, alternating with a regular office chair.
  • Limited adjustability which can result in poor upper-body postures, extended reaches and fatigued shoulders.
  • Need to ensure the proper size ball is obtained to maintain neutral postures.
  • Requires higher muscle activation in the trunk, resulting in fatigue and additional compression forces in the spine.
  • Safety risk of rolling off the ball.
  • May take up extra space in the office to have both a stability ball and office chair.
Sit / Stand / Lean chair To rest the legs while engaging the torso in a more standing posture. $$
  • May not accommodate all work areas or work tasks.
  • Potential balance issues for certain employees.
  • May not be widely accepted for use.
Wearable Device – Posture Tracker To teach user to maintain better posture. Also tracks movement (steps, distance) and calories. $
  • Requires a behavioral change, while office environment remains the same. Depends on individual to track, understand, and use results.
  • Employees may choose not to wear the device.
Wearable Device – Activity Tracker To track steps per day or other dynamic movement. $
  • Requires a behavioral change, while office environment remains the same. Depends on individual to track, understand, and use results.
  • May be difficult to get employees to wear them and set achievable goals, and difficult to ensure employees are meeting these goals.
Lay down office workstation To allow lie down position while working. Also allows for sitting and standing. $$$$
  • While lying down has the least amount disc pressure, there is static posture, which does not promote dynamic movement.
  • Takes up a lot of space.
  • Would work best for a telecommuter and not in an office.
Micro-stretches or Micro-breaks To create a way through which employees move their bodies regularly, increasing blood circulation, and minimizing the effects of static postures at regular intervals throughout the day. $
  • Depends on individual motivation.
  • Reminders may be needed to keep up with regular interval exercises.
Wellness Center Wellness Center with a break area to allow for standing areas, treadmills, exercise equipment, “Zen” room, nap or laydown room $$$$
  • Requires added space and possibly staffing.

Ergonomist Opinions and Recommendations

So what do we recommend? The number one focus is to ensure ease of application and comfort (which is correlated with productivity) for the employee, with short-term affordability as the second priority. To minimize the impact of negative health impacts to sedentary workers, it is critical to increase motion and minimize static postures. Still, providing an ergonomic chair and options for adjustability in the work area, while encouraging movement throughout the workday, creates an office environment with the essentials for reducing sedentary time spent while working.

As noted above, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, nor an overarching solution that will appeal to all workers in all situations and environments. There is much to consider when opting for modifications to the office space, whether individual changes, or office-wide solutions. Most importantly, establishing a continuous improvement platform that focuses on addressing ergonomic risk factors and minimizing prolonged static postures is essential to drive excellence in the office workplace.

Contact the Authors

If you would like to speak with one of the authors about the ideas presented in this article, or would like to learn more about ergonomics strategies, please reach out to one of the experts below.

Jodi Glunz
Senior Consultant
Aon Risk Solutions
Milwaukee, WI

Gail Gilmore
Senior Consultant
Aon Risk Solutions
Los Angeles, CA
Vicki Missar
Associate Director
Aon Risk Solutions
Dallas, TX

Jeremy Wilzbacher
Senior Consultant
Aon Risk Solutions
Lander, WY