Nearly half the adult labor force suffers from some form of chronic pain and 40% of Americans experience head, back or neck pain which negatively impacts their enjoyment of life and ability to work[i]. The estimated cost to US employers from lost working days and reduced productivity for back pain alone is over $7 billion per year and over 70% of these costs come from exacerbation of existing problems.[ii]
Fortunately employers can significantly reduce the costs of treatment, insurance and reduced productivity by empowering their workforce. Through educational programs to build greater awareness and the provision of appropriate tools or training employers can foster cost-saving and life-saving behavioral changes. Employees benefit from being supported to prioritize their physical wellbeing and healthier staff provide huge long term financial benefits and immediate cost savings.
Cause for Concern
Even the mildest pain reduces our ability to concentrate and focus on everyday tasks – severely impacting the ability to perform in the workplace. Living with chronic pain gradually wears down motivation and is correlated with an increased risk of depression, stress, fatigue and reduced self-esteem.[iii]
Repetitive tasks, such as working on an assembly line, and heavy lifting used to be the most common causes of back pain or injury on the workplace. However, the increased prevalence of desk based jobs and our modern sedentary lifestyle is creating an alarming increase in back problems. Lack of exercise, poor posture and long periods sitting still has reduced the spinal health of the nation and over 10% of the population experience lower back pain (double the incidence of the previous decade).[iv]
Inactive and Ineffective
‘Sitting Disease’ is a very modern phenomenon which is increasing at epidemic rates – we spend on average 7.7 hours sitting every single day[v]. The human body was simply not designed to stay so still and the health implications of inactivity are starting to become apparent. Heart disease, diabetes and even premature death have all been linked to a lack of physical activity[vi]. Jobs that require long hours sitting at a desk, or other sedentary position, combined with hours spent in front of the TV are negatively impacting physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
- Physical activity assists the transport toxins out of the body, supporting the immune system
- Movement causes the release of hormones which improve mood and aid longevity
- Lack of movement is associated with lethargy and reduced energy – which many use as an excuse to justify inactivity
- Sitting still has a negative impact on metabolism increasing the risk of diabetes and contributing to weight gain
- Simply standing up burns 30% more calories than sitting down!
While exercise is hugely beneficial health it is only part of the solution – sitting still all day during the week is not outweighed by running a marathon at the weekend. To avoid the potential health risks of inactivity at work employers need to develop long term strategies to support their staff. There are a wide range of options that can be considered to prevent inactivity, increase movement, strengthen muscles and prevent problems.
From a change management perspective employers need to raise awareness of the problems associated with inactivity before they can expect employees to take action. Most people have no idea of the severity and likelihood of back problems and negative health outcomes from simply sitting still. Corporate Wellbeing Campaigns often miss this vital step in implementation – if you develop and nurture an awareness of the problems the desire to change comes from within.
To help staff make meaningful changes employers need to support a variety of workplace adaptions, including:
Standing Desks – these allow employees to stand while using the computer, draw, design or any other activity which requires a desk. This workplace adaption is increasing in popularity, however, is not a new invention and was reportedly used by Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. They take a little time to get used to (for example finding the correct posture and rebuilding the muscles needed to stand upright) but provide a safe and effective way to get the job done without the risks associated with sitting still.
Treadmill desks – a little more extreme these allow people to actively move and walk, or even run, while working. They take a high degree of concentration and definitely some practice and are more suited to hands-free activities like talking on the phone. Research has shown using this style of ‘desk’ for periods during the day improves physical and psychological wellbeing without impacting performance.[vii]
Standing Space – there are many tasks typically performed while sitting at a desk which don’t actually require the desk (for example: short meetings, talking on the phone, reading etc.) By providing employees with alternative spaces they can chose to stand, or even walk around, while working. Creating pleasant and supportive environments is critical to encouraging change – a nicely lit, ventilated, bright space full of oxygenating plants will inspire employees to use it.
Movement Breaks – one of the most effective ways to prevent injury is to take regular movement breaks. Simply standing and stretching for a few minutes has a huge impact. Employees often find it difficult to take breaks, especially when facing tight deadlines, so need active encouragement to stop working for a few minutes every hour. In addition to the physical benefits a quick stretch or brief walk helps wake-up the mind and enhances mental clarity. This behavioral change can be stimulated with: desktop timers which remind people to take a break; outdoor spaces to get some fresh air (away from dedicated smoking spaces!); marked ‘walking routes’ around buildings; incentives for employees who do take breaks.
Physical Assessments – many people are not in tune with their own physical requirements and need individual attention and assessments to identify potential problems. The mind is very ‘happy’ ignoring big issues and gentle advice – given with the right intention – can motivate individuals to look at personal health challenges. Often people become overwhelmed when faced with significant health problems, such as being very overweight, and greatly appreciate individual attention and a joint plan of action.
Tools and Training – the freedom to work comfortably requires the provision of appropriate equipment and knowledge. Blue tooth headsets, postural supports, correctly sized desks and chairs are all effective in practically supporting staff. Empowering employees should also include training, specific to the job and a general understanding of how to enhance spinal musculature and sit correctly to prevent problems later in life. The provision of effective resources also communicates an organizations genuine dedication to employee well being.
[i] Institute of Medicine of the National Academies Report. Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research, 2011. The National Academies Press, Washington DC. (page 260)
[ii] Spine 2006, Dec 15;31(26):3052-60, Back pain exacerbations and lost productive time costs in United States workers, Ricci JA, Stewart WF, Chee E, Leotta C, Foley K, Hochberg MC. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17173003
[iii] Mayo Clinic, Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D. “Is there a link between pain and depression?” http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/pain-and-depression/faq-20057823
[iv] Archives of Internal Medicine, 2009 Feb 9; 169(3): 251–258. “The Rising Prevalence of Chronic Low Back Pain”
[v] Sitting Disease by the Numbers http://www.juststand.org/tabid/674/language/en-US/default.aspx
[vi] Harvard Health 2015, Julie Corliss (Executive Editor of Harvard Heart Letter) “Too much sitting linked to heart disease, diabetes, premature death” http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/much-sitting-linked-heart-disease-diabetes-premature-death-201501227618
[vii] Preventative Medicine, 2015 Jan;70:50-8, A systematic review of standing and treadmill desks in the workplace. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25448843