This month (May) is “National Walking Month” run by the organisation Living Streets. In an increasingly sedentary working world this can be a useful health promotion marker to get employees up, moving and on their feet to improve their health and wellbeing.
Employee health and wellbeing – tackle sedentary lifestyles during National Walking Month
The perils of our increasingly sedentary working and home lifestyles are becoming ever clearer. Recent research by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University has suggested that sitting for long periods during the day can be linked to around one in 10 deaths each year in the UK, primarily because the increased risk as a result of being diagnosed with conditions such as cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Conditions associated with prolonged sedentary behaviour – such as cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, lung cancer and type 2 diabetes – cost the NHS around £700m in 2016-17, it calculated.
All the more reason, therefore, for employers and employees alike to embrace National Walking Month this month (May).
The initiative run by the organisation Living Streets is designed to encourage change at national and local level.
It will include lobbying for pavements and cities to be made more pedestrian-friendly, for parents to drop the car-based school run in favour of walking to school and, simply, for people to get up and about and walking, whether in the urban environment or in the countryside.
All this is, of course, highly laudable. It also very much chimes from a workplace context. Between sedentary commuting, then being sat at a desk all day, not getting out at lunchtime and then slumping in front of the TV of an evening, it is very easy to fall into an overly sedentary lifestyle.
Inability to get away from the desk
Indeed, recent research has suggested more than half (53%) of office workers believe their health is impaired by their workplace, with an inability to get enough exercise or time away from their desks a key worry.
The survey of 2,000 office staff on behalf of leisure product supplier Home Leisure Direct found two-thirds admitted to spending more than 60% of their time at work sitting down, while the remaining third said they spent more than 80% of their working day sedentary.
Within this, it is important to recognise that over-sedentary lives can have consequences for mental as well as physical health. The links between exercise and both mental and physical health are now well-recognised and so, just as it is beneficial in terms of physical health to be encouraging employees to become more active, so creating a more “on your feet” environment can have mental health benefits, too.
What, therefore, can employers do about this?
The first thing to recognise is there is no magic bullet to solving this problem. Our sedentary lifestyles are something we have to tackle as individuals and as a society, and the workplace is just one part of the solution. The second thing to recognise is that, as an employer, you can encourage employees to be more active but, ultimately, it is only the individual who can actually decide to change their lifestyle.
Nevertheless, there is much employers can do to help change sedentary habits. Encouraging more face-to-face rather than email communication can be a good start (and may actually lead to greater collaboration and creativity). Encouraging employees to take the stairs instead of the lift is also a positive and relatively painless change.
Proper breaks and standing meetings
Similarly, ensuring there is time and space in the working day to get out at lunchtime, to take a proper break and go for a walk (even if just around the block) can make a difference, as can be addressing a long working hours culture.
Taking things a step further, you can invest in sit-stand desks or encourage standing or walk-and-talk meetings. While these will undoubtedly feel strange at first, they can help to embed and sustain more active lifestyle changes. They may have the added benefit of leading to shorter and more focused meetings, too.
The final thing to recognise, as Optima Health Chief Medical Officer Dr Lucy Wright emphasises, is that even incremental change can be helpful here, especially if it can be sustained and built upon over time.
“No one expects our workplaces to be transformed overnight into places full of lycra-clad athletes. But encouraging even small changes in working lifestyles can, over time, develop into sustainable change that can make a real difference to employee health and wellbeing.
“We all, in principle, know that overly-sedentary lifestyles are bad for us and our long-term health. Therefore employers that embrace this message and work proactively to get employees up and on their feet may be pushing at an open – and popular – door.
“Using events such as National Walking Month can be a great ‘hook’ to start encouraging your employees to make positive health-based changes in their lifestyles,” she says.