Our work environment can have a huge impact on our physical health.
Many of us spend around eight hours a day seated and staring at a screen and there are increasing reports on the worrying implications this can have on our wellbeing. Excessive sitting can reportedly increase our chances of suffering cancer, heart disease and diabetes. It is, we are told, the ‘new smoking’.
And then of course there are the musculoskeletal implications of bad posture as we sit at our desks. Not only can this be extremely painful and debilitating, but according to the Health and Safety Executive, 8.9 million working days were lost to work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the 2016/17 financial year. To put that another way, they account for 39 per cent of all work related ill health.
But fortunately the days of enduring physical pain, and potentially suffering long term health issues, from spending hour after hour at a desk appear to be coming to an end.
The modern, positive workplace is increasingly adopting ergonomics – a scientific way of designing and arranging things so people interact with them more efficiently and safely - to move us away from our sedentary ways of working and encourage better posture.
Sit-stand desks are becoming a popular alternative to the traditional workstation and enable employees to carry out their work in both seating and standing positions. While the number of calories this burns is not particularly high (around 114 per hour), it is more active than sitting in a chair and studies have suggested it can ease back pain. In Denmark it is now mandatory for employers to offer staff sit-stand desks.
The evolution of the desk is not the only ergonomic change aimed at getting us to move a little more and improve our posture. Some companies have replaced the traditional office chairs with exercise or stability balls, while chairs with memory foam padding and ergonomically designed keyboards and telephone headsets have become regular features.
But ergonomics in the workplace does not stop there. It actually goes way beyond the physical layout of workstations. The availability of natural light is another key factor for those spending long hours in the office. Studies have shown that not only do employees with exposure to natural light sleep better at night, but that they move more during the day. Artificial light, meanwhile, can cause stress, fatigue and eye strain.
Break out spaces are also seen as being increasingly important and can play a crucial role in preventing staff from being glued to their desks. They also create a change of scenery, can boost creativity and bring a social factor to the office.
Temperature may be one of the most complained about things in many workplaces, but academic studies have shown that getting it right can boost productivity and reduce absenteeism. Research suggests the best office temperature is between 22 and 24°C.
Noise is perhaps not the most obvious thing that comes to mind when discussing ergonomics. But some studies have shown that excessive noise can cause workers to slump at their workstations, creating increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Excessive background noise has also been shown to impair alertness and increase annoyance and mistakes. It can also make it difficult to understand conversations with colleagues and ultimately it can increase stress and reduce productivity.
Finally, plants in the office offer more than just aesthetic value. You don’t need to try to match the 40,000 plants in Amazon’s new Seattle headquarters come rainforest. But adding some greenery to the office can, according to research, prevent sick days, reduce stress and boost productivity – something which could leave your competitors green with envy.