The office here at Medical News Today HQ is a pleasant place to work. It is a largely tranquil place (until somebody decides to use the shredder) where the tea is plentiful and occasionally a passing dog can be spotted through the window.
On the idyllic surface, it seems as though it would be a perfectly safe and healthy place to work. There are certainly no obvious hazards of the kind that are commonplace on construction sites or in factories, and many office workers enjoy the benefits of rigid working days, rather than having their body clocks thrown by changing shift patterns.
But offices are not without their hazards, even if these are not as overt as those in other environments. One significant problem comes from being sat at a desk for most of the day. A recent study has suggested that the amount of time spent sitting each day is associated with a higher risk of various diseases.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), around 21,638,470 people are employed in jobs defined as office and administrative support occupations. However, this figure does not include other occupations, such as management roles, business and financial operations occupations or computer occupations that are also likely to be based in office environments.
In this Spotlight, we investigate what the health-conscious office worker needs to be wary of if they are going to complete their 9-5 with both body and mind intact, and if there are any ways for them to maintain peak fitness during their employment.
Chained to your desk
As mentioned above, sitting for long periods of time every day is bad for your health. While sitting reduces the amount of time individuals can spend exercising, researchers have demonstrated that prolonged sitting time is associated with poor health outcomes regardless of the amount of physical activity performed.
Although sitting at a desk is a seemingly simple task, it is an easy one for people to do wrong. Workers often complain of sore wrists and pain in the back and neck, and this will frequently be due to the way they position their body while working.
If an individual is sitting or typing in an unhealthy way, it is likely that they will be putting strain on their body for most of their working day. That is a lot of strain for a body to take over the course of a week. Unsurprisingly, back pain is one of the most common reasons for employees missing work and is the second most common reason for visits to the doctor.
The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) state that back pain can be caused by poor posture, obesity and psychological stress among other factors, all of which can easily come into play in an office environment if work is tense and not allowing for employees to take leave from their desks.
Good posture at the desk is the first step to be taken in protecting your health when working in the office. This can be achieved with efficient office ergonomics. Making sure that all objects that will be needed are situated close by reduces excessive stretching.
When sitting in front of a computer, the body should be positioned centrally to the monitor and keyboard. You should sit up straight with feet rested flat on the floor. If this is not possible, a footrest should be used. Thighs should ideally be horizontal with the knees and level with the hips.
The forearms should also be level or tilted up slightly. When typing, wrists should be in a straight and natural position. Using a wrist rest can reduce stress on the wrists and help prevent specific awkward positioning.
There are a number of common posture mistakes that can be made when sitting and can easily become part of a routine if not addressed:
- Slouching – this position places a lot of pressure on the lower back, damaging the ligaments, joints and soft tissue in this area and can lead to hunching
- Sitting cross-legged – this position tucks in the hip, making it difficult to sit up straight and leading to slouching. Sitting cross-legged can also lead to muscle imbalances in the hips that cause pain and stiffness
- Hunching forward – can lead to a tight chest and weak upper back, potentially leading to the development of a rounded upper back that is susceptible to pain and stiffness
- Poking the chin forward – sometimes a symptom of a hunched back or sitting too low as an attempt to compensate for excess downward pressure, this can lead to muscle weakness around the neck
- Phone cradling – employees that have to use a phone frequently may hold their phone handset between their ear and shoulder in order to leave their hands free to operate a computer or write. This can weaken the neck muscles and lead to muscle imbalances that cause headaches.
Office workers are advised to get up and move around whenever they can. The nature of many office jobs, however, usually results in long periods of sitting down. If you are going to be sitting down at a desk for any length of time, it is a good idea to get the basics right.
“The number one thing that gets people into trouble as far as a downgrade in their health is their posture,” says Luis Feigenbaum, a director of sports physical therapy at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, in conversation with ABC News.
Computers: one-eyed monsters of the office
These days, most people sitting at a desk will have a computer sitting right in front of them. Although they make a lot of jobs easier, they also make keeping healthy in the office a lot harder.
Firstly, where a computer and its related hardware are positioned can drastically influence posture. The height of a computer monitor will affect the height of an office chair – a monitor should be positioned directly in front of the user, about an arm’s length away, with the top of the screen just below eye level.
As well as posture, using a computer can wear down other parts of the body that are directly using it, namely the eyes and the wrists.
To avoid eye strain, both the computer monitor and the office lighting need to be addressed. The screen should be adjusted so that its brightness and contrast levels suit the lighting conditions in the room, which should not be too bright.
Screen glare is a major cause of eyestrain and can be reduced by ensuring that monitors are not positioned opposite windows where possible. If situated close to a window, use shades and blinds to reduce the amount of light that falls on the monitor.
If the font size of text being read on a computer is too small it can lead to eyestrain as well as harming posture, as a worker may be inclined to hunch forward to read text more closely. Increasing font size or zooming in on a page that is being read protects employees from this risk.
Typing is a repetitive action that puts the hands and wrists under great pressure. If performed forcefully enough and for long enough periods of time, it can lead to disabling pain. In office workers, it can lead to repetitive strain injuries, whereby the tissue surrounding the joints becomes inflamed or stress fractures develop.
Wrist injuries through typing can be prevented or at least reduced by maintaining a good typing posture. As mentioned earlier, wrists should be kept in a relaxed, natural position. Foam or gel wrist supports can provide extra protection.
One of the key messages when it comes to using computers in the office is how important it is to take regular breaks. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommend that workers take a 10 minute break for every hour spent on a computer, allowing the body to recover and reducing the risk of strain.
These breaks can include working on other tasks that do not involve using a computer. They also represent an opportunity for employees to get out of the sitting position. Alternatively, if employees have the freedom to do so, breaks could involve seeking sustenance to refuel their bodies.
Here be vending machines
The office environment is often full of temptation when it comes to eating healthily. Many offices are home to vending machines filled with sugary drinks and fatty snacks that sing out to workers eager to get a quick energy boost.
A desire for this kind of unhealthy food is increased if an individual hasn’t eaten properly in the morning or obtained enough sleep the night before. Finding time for both sleep and breakfast helps reduce the lure of unhealthy food throughout the working day.
Bringing a lunch and snacks to work also helps keep office workers away from vending machines and restaurants, as well as saving them money. Snacking is fine if it is done healthily, and while vending machines are unlikely to stock fruit, vegetables, hummus and seeds, workers can bring these in themselves.
“It’s really important to eat at least every four hours,” Beth Thayer tells ABC. “You need to make sure you’re setting some time aside to make sure you’re getting food in.”
Thayer, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, recommends packaging and preparing your own meals. “Small bags of nuts or snack mix you make yourself, or a small bag of fruit like apples or grapes,” she suggested. “Fruit works well for people who drive a lot.”
Eating is a great opportunity for workers to escape from their workstations, but few take advantage of it. According to a survey conducted by the American Dietetic Association in 2011, 62% of Americans eat lunch at their desks.
As well as preventing workers from getting away from work and keeping them sitting down in the same place, eating at the desk can lead to a build-up of bacteria if the correct hygiene precautions are not taken.
“We need to wash our hands and clean up the area after we eat at our desks,” Thayer warns. “Don’t let desks become places for bacterial growth.”
Leaving the desk for a break allows workers to regroup and collect themselves away from their work. Doing this can be particularly important in mentally demanding roles. Taking a proper break can help reduce stress levels that can be responsible for a wide range of health problems.
How to improve your fitness at work
Although the office can often be a comfortable place to work, it is important that workers do not allow unhealthy practices to become comfortable and routine. Remaining sedentary, using office equipment incorrectly and eating unhealthily can eventually lead to debilitating health problems that could stop individuals from working altogether.
Thankfully, office work also provides a number of options for keeping fit, and if these are incorporated into a working routine then there is no reason why working in an office should condemn employees to a life of ill health.
- Travel to work by walking or biking. Get off public transport a stop earlier than normal or park your car further away from the office
- Stand instead of sitting when working as much as possible. Find as many excuses to get out of your chair as possible
- Spend time during breaks to go for a brisk walk or do some stretching to keep the muscles loose and strong.
On the surface, working in an office appears to be a simple form of employment. While that may be true in comparison with some other jobs, it is important that office workers do not get complacent and sit idly as their health runs away from them.
Dr. Timothy Church, from the Preventive Medicine Laboratory at Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Louisiana State University, told MNT that the biggest risk to the health of office workers is the sedentary lifestyle.
“The answer is getting active,” he said. “Get up at least every 45 minutes and obtain at least 7,000 steps per day.”