Whether you’re counting in days or years until your retirement, it’s important that you remain fit and healthy to continue to be able to work for as long as you plan to. Modern working practices can often be pretty sedentary and pose a variety of health risks. Furthermore, many of us have had to adapt our homes into office space too over the last year – less than ideal.
If you haven’t won the lottery yet (or you have and you’re still deciding what to do), and still have to work, there’s a pretty good chance that your job involves sitting in a chair at a desk, typing on a keyboard for a good portion of the day. There are risks involved!
Here are some tips for better workplace health and safety.
How to Improve Workplace Health and Safety
Regardless of whether your office colleague is your cat or Angie from accounting, you’re pretty much sat in the same position, day in and day out. In fact, many workers report sitting for longer than five hours a day at work. With sedentary activities making up between sixty to seventy percent of their daily behaviour, office workers report that they are sitting for up to eighty-two percent of their time at work.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to go and eat elsewhere, rather than at their desk, chances are you’ll sit down during their lunch break before returning to your desk to sit down some more. This can be a real problem.
Whilst employee’s who sit at their desk all day might accomplish a lot of work, they are also storing up a frightening array of health problems and risks for the future.
What are these risks?
- Long periods of sedentary activities increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and type two diabetes.
- Obesity can become an issue due to the way that the body burns carbohydrates and fat when sitting. As well as sheer lack of movement.
- Muscles can become weak – especially the gluteal muscles. (That’s the bottom, if you weren’t paying attention in biology class). This can lead to lower back pain as well as potential knee problems.
- Employees who spend a lot of time typing find themselves at risk of problems with their upper limbs, shoulders and neck.
Before you know it, the poor employee can find themselves with a variety of musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions.
Musculoskeletal Issues at Work
A 2013 report showed that, in the UK, more sick days were attributed to MSK issues than anything else (23% of sick days, or around 9.5 million in total) – and that each period of UK MSK absence lasted 17 days on average.
And in 2010, 36% of those with MSK conditions who could no longer work blamed their employment for their issue. From these figures, it’s easy to see what an effect MSK problems can have both for the individual at work and their employer.
So, what can be done?
Employers’ part in workplace health and safety
For an employer, helping prevent MSK risks can actually improve staff morale and productivity. There are a number of things they could do:
- Offering employees a discounted (or paid for!) gym membership can boost employee wellbeing and make them feel more valued.
- Bringing in corporate acupressure massage is a popular method. This is used by employers to help catch upper body MSK issues before they take hold. It’s also a “perk” that employees are often happy to contribute towards.
- Restocking the canteen or vending machines with healthier options might cause grumbles initially, but will help encourage healthy eating habits.
- Organising out of hours activities such as a football team, regular fitness class outings or even organised walks might trigger memories of school sports days, but can also encourage movement and team building.
For those employers who want to help the environment as well as their employee’s health (and therefore their company’s bottom line) might even wish to look at the Cycle To Work scheme, where employees can buy a bicycle as a tax benefit and pay for it directly from their salary.
Whilst an employer can set an example and encourage their employees to make life style changes, the worker isn’t left entirely at the while or mercy of their boss to change things. Ultimately, employees can take charge of workplace health and safety.
Our side of the bargain
Simply getting up and walking around on a periodic basis is a good first step to mitigate the risks.
Taking the time to learn a few simple stretches that can be repeated every hour or so at our desks could also make a real difference.
Stretches to consider include those that involve:
- rotating the shoulders and arms
- moving the head from side to side
- moving the head up and down.
Check out these stretches and more at www.state11.co.uk/work
How to Make Desk Work Safer
Careful consideration should also be given to the seating and workspace set up that is in place too. Traditional keyboards make it very easy to rest the wrists in a diagonal position that can aggravate the carpel tunnel area of the wrists. This leads to possible weakness or carpel tunnel syndrome. This can be avoided by either purchasing an ergonomic keyboard with soft touch keys. Alternatively, one could train oneself to hold wrists level above the keyboard rather than resting them on a “wrist rest.” Even if is a padded wrist rests can aggravate the wrists.
A badly adjusted monitor can lead to craning of the head and neck, which over time can lead to shoulder and neck problems. Whilst not every employer has a dedicated health and safety officer checking desk setups, there are plenty of guides available online about how to position monitors, keyboards and chairs at the right height and distance to minimise problems – often just a hardback book or two under a monitor’s base can fix the problem.
Of course, long term monitor use should also be accompanied by regular check-ups at the optician. Having to squint and peer at a screen can lead to headaches…and wrinkles!
After work, it’s really important for employees to try and get some exercise in.
At your leisure
Interestingly, our bodies treat movement done during work (carting things up and down the stairs, for instance) as different from movement that we do in leisure activities such as walking the dog or some weight lifting. The muscles work differently and the body burns fat and carbohydrates in a different way.
So, having a busy day job is no excuse not to go for some exercise outside of work!
Movement at work also doesn’t come with the same mental health benefits that home exercise does. However, feeling happy and confident encourages better posture all by itself. Although MSK can be a crippling issue for both employees and employers, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Although financial investment can make lessening the MSK risk easier, inventive thinking by employers can gradually change an office’s culture from desk-bound employees storing up ill-health to motivated. Healthier employees are much less likely to go off sick.
Employees should take some responsibility for movement during the day. Perhaps even setting a timer on their phone if they are likely to get buried in their work. Taking regular stretch breaks can be extremely good at lessening risks and preventing issues. However, it is important not to then go home and sit down some more!
This article was written by Vic Paterson from State 11 Sports Massage & Soft Tissue Therapy. Mid-way through a successful career as a computer programmer, Vic decided to throw it all in for a career in public service. Her dream of being poor but happy never quite materialised, and turned into a nightmare after she got damaged both physically and mentally. After she got better, she realised that she wanted to help other people get better too. So now she’s a Level 5 Soft Tissue Therapist, specialising on helping people with long term and chronic pain injuries. She works from her own private studio on a 1:1 basis. Vic also provides corporate and promotional work including seated acupressure.
Thanks for reading. Check out other Blue Diamond articles to help you take control of your work and life.