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Sideboard interview with Jonathan Daniel of FitBack Physiotherapy

The average British office worker spends almost three-quarters of their working day sitting and this is having a serious effect on the long term health of employees, not to mention productivity. In our latest Sideboard expert interview we speak to Jonathan Daniel of FitBack Physiotherapy about the changes boards and senior managers can make to tackle inactivity, absenteeism and poor physical and mental health.

How much is the modern workplace contributing to poor physical and mental health?

Most of us will have read statistics on the impact of absenteeism on businesses but very few people know the numbers around inactivity at work and the impact this has on employee health and wellbeing. UK office workers spend between 65% and 75% of their working day sitting, 50% of which is accumulated in prolonged periods of sitting.  This issue has crept up on us over the past 50 years or so, as the social landscape of UK business has moved away from moderate and heavy manual labour to more technical and office-based work. The shift has coincided with fewer people commuting on foot or by bike and a rise in sedentary leisure time, exacerbated by the use of computers, mobile phones and television, and this means UK adults now spend an estimated 60% of their waking hours being sedentary.

You might assume that the biggest consequence of sitting at a desk all day is back pain but latest research highlights potential risks such as premature mortality, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, obesity, musculoskeletal problems and some types of cancer. In fact, a recent publication in the Lancet went so far as to warn that office workers who sit at their desk for more than 8 hours per day are 60% more likely to die from some types of cancer and heart disease than those who are more active.

Even more concerning is the fact that even those who exercise outside work hours are still at risk if they sit for prolonged periods at work.  With inactivity, our muscles, joints and fascia adapt so that some structures become tight and short while others become long and weak, which can cause tightness and stiffness in the muscles and joints, which means we are literally in danger of becoming chair-shaped.

How important is the role of the employer in improving health and wellbeing at work?

The office environment can actually be the perfect place to help people become more active and protect against the risks of sedentary behaviour. In fact, it could be easier to tackle it at work than trying to motivate people to pull on a pair of trainers and go for a run in their spare time.

The changes that can be made in the workplace fall into three categories: Environmental (even simple things can make a difference, like moving printers and photocopiers further away so that staff have to leave their desks), behavioural (such as introducing techniques to encourage employees to take more breaks) and office culture (saying goodbye to ‘al desko dining’ for example).

Employers have a key role to play in ensuring employees get up and move around more regularly.  Measures might include introducing walking or standing meetings, encouraging staff to hand deliver information around the office instead of relying so heavily on e-mails and instilling a culture of breaks and eating lunch away from the desk.  There are some interesting initiatives such as “Get Britain Standing” and “Work Out at Work” days and all sorts of ways to inspire some interdepartmental competition based around increasing activity in the office. All of these ideas are fairly cheap and easy to implement and can have a positive and lasting effect on employee health and well-being.  Changes like these, particularly when it comes to office culture, however, will only happen with buy-in from the top.

So what can boards and senior management do to support staff in an effort to reduce absenteeism, musculoskeletal pain and injury and mental wellbeing?

I often talk about this in terms of “presenteeism” rather than absenteeism. Presenteeism is classified as an employee attending work with a work-place health related issue which negatively affects their performance and productivity. Gaining a better understanding of the costs to an individual’s health and to businesses is key to maintaining a healthy productive workforce.  Stats suggest that over half of UK employees attend work with work-place health related issues. The most common are musculoskeletal disorders such as lower back pain, neck pain and headaches.  Presenteeism affects morale, health and safety and productivity and the combined cost of absenteeism and presenteeism to the UK economy is estimated to be £73 billion per year due to lost productivity.  Actual figures are likely to be even higher and in the UK there is some evidence to suggest that presenteeism could be three times more costly than absenteeism.

There are a whole host of factors contributing to the rise in presenteeism such as employee working habits, lack of (or perceived lack of) health and wellbeing initiatives for employees, increasing work volume and time pressures. Worryingly, a recent survey of UK workers showed that 44% of those surveyed felt that their employer wasn’t doing enough to support their general wellbeing so there is clear room for improvement. I am passionate about beating the hazards of the sedentary office and some of the ways we do this are to provide health days for our clients and offer advice and education on getting active, healthy eating, sensible alcohol intake and back pain prevention. Many employers also use us to run 1:1 physiotherapy assessments at work.  From experience, we have found that many barriers to employees becoming more active are due to underlying musculoskeletal problems, which may need to be addressed before activity can be increased.  We have also helped companies implement innovative employee challenges, such as cycling, walking or step challenges.  Providing employees with visual feedback and targets is a great way to get them to engage in activity in the work place.

What positive impact can businesses expect to achieve if they tackle the health of their workforce at boardroom level?

There are very clear benefits to individuals being more active in the workplace and getting out of their chair regularly. Moving more reduces the risk of all kinds of health problems, as I’ve explained above.  There is also a positive impact for employers and organisations.  A less sedentary office has the potential to increase productivity both for individuals and for the business.  Improving employee productivity, increasing profitability and reducing the costs associated with absenteeism through sick pay and arranging cover are all clear financial wins.  Going back to those all-too-familiar absenteeism stats, the UK’s Office for National Statistics reports that in 2014 131 million working days were lost due to sickness absence.  The highest number of days (around 31 million) lost was due to back, neck and muscle pain with the second highest occupation being desk-based workers.  There is clearly a large economic need to make inroads to reduce these figures and when forward-thinking employers introduce strategies to reduced sedentary behaviour in our work places the knock-on effect on the nation’s health – not to mention corporate productivity and profitability – could be huge.