Risky Office or Lifestyle Syndrome?


Risky Office or Lifestyle Syndrome?


There continues to be overwhelming evidence that our modern sedentary lifestyle is having a detrimental impact on the overall health, safety and productivity of Australian employees. Australian Industry is waking up to the benefits of well developed and implemented Workplace Health Programs designed to tackle the current health issues facing modern society.

A recent Monash University Study of 300,000 Victorian workers found that 83% of workers that were at high risk of heart disease falsely believed their health was "good", "very good" or "excellent". It also found that 84 per cent of workers who were at high risk of type 2 diabetes were similarly deluded about the state of their health and that 10% of participants were advised to visit a GP urgently.

Further studies found that only 5% of workers were meeting recommendations for all four "behavioural risk factors" (relating to physical activity, fruit intake, vegetable intake and tobacco usage).

It is common knowledge that we should eat well, exercise regularly, do not smoke, get plenty of rest and maintain a healthy work life balance. However the evidence is that overall as a society we are less active, more overweight, working greater hours and eating worse than ever before.

Risks of sedentary office work

Health and safety risks in white-collar environments can often be overlooked as they are sometimes not as obvious as they might be in an industrial or manufacturing settings.

A lot of physical hazards have been "designed out" of modern workplaces. However there are more "subtle" risks that employers must be aware of, such as excessive sitting.

A recent report has found that advances in office ergonomics over the last 30 years have done little to reduce the high rate of neck pain and other musculoskeletal (MS) symptoms among office workers. Based on a survey of 934 public sector employees, the researchers, led by Karin Griffiths of Sydney University's Faculty of Health Sciences, found there was a "linear relationship between hours worked with a computer per day and prevalence of MS symptoms".

Out of those who spent more than eight hours a day working on a computer, 85% experienced neck pain, and 74% reported shoulder pain.

Despite the advances in office ergonomics since computers were first introduced, any benefits obtained may be partially or fully negated by changing work practices, including longer duration of computer usage per day with less task variability.

The main issues associated with prolonged sitting and the lack of physical activity, commonly associated with computer work, may be contributing to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, along with musculoskeletal pain. Compounding the issue of prolonged inactivity at work, research is finding that Australians are working long hours than ever before.

A recent Australia Institute report into working hours reveals that;

  • Australian full-time employees work an average 44 hours a week, some six hours more than the "standard" working week;
  • more than half work an average of 70 minutes more than they are paid for on a typical workday, which equates to 33 eight-hour days a year;
  • employees who work unpaid overtime say it is either compulsory, expected or "not discouraged"; and
  • employees who work unpaid overtime believe that if they didn't, the "work wouldn't get done".

The implication of these findings is that unless ergonomic training addresses the issues of extended periods of sitting, and the impact of lifestyle health issues, then it ineffective training.

What proactive employers are doing to address employee health and to improve productivity

Developing Workplace Health Promotion programs

Proactive employers across a diverse range of industries are developing Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) programs to highlight the risks of poor lifestyle and available options to live healthier. Best practice programs aim to improve health and well-being by incorporating organisational and individual factors (i.e. not a one-size-fits-all approach).

Some interventions include;

  • Completion of worker health checks to assess key health indicators and provide feedback to the individual of the findings.
  • Delivery of health promotion programs within the workplace e.g. stop smoking campaigns, weight loss competitions, fruit baskets delivered to the workplace, walking competitions.
  • Completing holistic ergonomic assessments for all employees taking into consideration the work habits of employees such as working hours, workstation set-up, working postures and significance of being active.

The benefits of these programs when well-planned and targeted to meet the needs of the organisation can have a significant impact in improving overall worker health and well-being in the work environment.

Changing the Office Environment

The office work environment has seen a significant number of improvements over the last 30 years such as open plan offices, improved workstation design and addressing physical hazards (e.g. trip hazards).

To address the issues associated with sedentary work employers are aiming to increase the physical activity of office workers by;

  • Introducing sit and stand workstations.
  • Encouraging more standing and walking within offices as a matter of course for everyone who uses a computer for most of their day.
  • Changing work practices such as walking over to colleagues, instead of emailing them, and placing telephones on standing benches.
  • Creating more flexible work environments to address the health implications of excessive work hours.

Whilst the interventions listed above seem straightforward to implement, it is not the norm for employers to implement well targeted Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) programs.

Key factors essential to successful WHP programs include;

  • Organisational commitment to improving the health of the workforce.
  • Information and communication strategies for workers. 
  • Employee involvement throughout the process and 
  • Implementing practices that enhance healthy choices as the easiest choices. 

The financial and morale benefits through the engagement of the workforce in WHP programs and changing the work environment has been demonstrated by proactive employers.

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