The graveyard shift: Our offices are killing us, now is the time to fight back

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16 September 2016

Tanni Grey-Thompson – London Business Matters

The graveyard shift: Our offices are killing us, now is the time to fight back

Forgive me for sounding alarmist, but if you’re reading this at your desk then there could be deadly consequences. Not from this modest article of course, but from the toxic toll that sedentary office culture is taking on our health.

Where once it was Victorian workhouses, unsafe mine shafts and asbestos insulations that were the scourges of our workforce, today it is the humble office. A more anodyne threat, you might say, but inactive workplaces are far more deadly than any of our former foes.

According to new research in The Lancet, office workers spending eight-hours sitting at a desk are up to 60 per cent more likely to die early from diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Desk jobs are, quite literally, to die for. With the number of people working in service roles having doubled since 1960, office inactivity is now a ticking time-bomb – both for our uncertain economy and our overburdened health service.

There is no doubt the lack of activity is hitting our bottom line. Deloitte estimates that workplace absenteeism costs the UK around £29bn per year, and much of this is preventable. The majority of Britain’s 131 million annual sick days are due to back, neck and muscle pain – conditions that can be largely avoided through regular movement and strength exercises.

Put simply, we are limping towards an early grave because we are not moving enough. As a result, ukactive – the non-profit health organisation of which I am Chair – is calling for a radical overhaul of office life and a significant culture change to reinvigorate the workplace.

Turning the tide of inactivity blighting our offices will require a multi-faceted approach. Government, employers and employees must all step up with creative solutions to embed physical activity into their daily lives.

For the new government - eager to insulate our economy from the chill winds of Brexit through increased productivity - now is the perfect time to spark a sea change with some sensible policies to boost the wellbeing of our workforce. Why not support businesses (and not just the big ones) by making it easier for them to offer employee benefits such as gym memberships? The Treasury could broaden the hugely successful cycle to work salary sacrifice scheme – estimated to have saved £5.1bn through health benefits accrued through participation – to encompass gym passes, fitness products and accessories.

And why stop there? The government could consider tax breaks for organisations which can prove they have an effective wellness strategy in place which supports the mental and physical health of their employees. And while they’re at it, how about leading the way by ensuring every Whitehall department and local authority publishes an employee wellness strategy?

For many business owners, the concept of an employee wellness strategy may sound costly and daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. This can be built on simple principles such as altering the office layout to encourage movement – putting the printer in the furthest corner for example – and the strategic placement of ‘nudge’ posters encouraging employees to take the stairs over the lift.

But as with most things in business, the more you put in, the more you get out. Research has shown that the ROI for companies that invest in staff wellbeing programmes is £3 for every £1 spent.

While today’s well-run wellness scheme might help a business to nail its stretch targets, in the future, it could mean the difference between success and insolvency. As menial tasks become increasingly automated, human skills such as collaboration, creativity and empathy will become ever more important for job creation – qualities which demand the highest level of mental and physical wellness. Clearly, the companies with happy and healthy workforces will be best-placed to thrive in this brave new world. And for those who disregard their employees’ wellbeing, it isn’t too much of a stretch to envision a future where workers take legal action against employers for failing to safeguard their health.

But as any business leader knows, the best laid plans are useless if the workforce fails to get behind them. That’s why it’s vital we empower our employees to take responsibility for their own wellbeing by providing the tools and support to inspire physical activity.

With a recent survey finding that 80 per cent of UK office workers want to fit more exercises into their everyday work routine, there is evident appetite for change. What we have now is a real opportunity to think creatively about how we achieve this.

Signposting employees towards existing exercise opportunities is an easy and effective start. Events like National Fitness Day on 7th September – which will see thousands of free taster workouts offered in gyms and leisure centres across the country – play a useful role in connecting the workforce with activity options in the close vicinity of the office.

Structured exercise sessions are an ideal way to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines (150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week) but there are many other ways we can build physical activity into the daily work routine. We can encourage our teams to shake up their commute with increased amounts of walking or cycling, while installing showers in the office to support these more active means of arrival. And instead of traditional networking sessions in meeting rooms, cafes and pubs, let’s urge our teams to hit the gym or park for ‘sweatworking’ sessions. We’ve all had great ideas over a drink with clients and colleagues, but the power of exercise to boost creativity and spark ideas – as well as build a more meaningful and trusting relationship with a client – should not be underestimated.

Transforming our offices will not be an easy task, but there really is no alternative. Failure to act will result in a more absent, unproductive and ineffective workforce. As Britain battles to remain a global force under the cloud of Brexit, the London Chamber of Commerce & Industry has a fantastic opportunity to be at the forefront of the workplace wellness revolution and help our capital’s firms to maintain their competitive edge. For the sake of our society, our economy and our health, we must unite government, employers and employees in a full-fledged assault on the age of inactivity.

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