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Addressing sedentary behaviour: occupational sitting - an emerging workplace health and safety issue

Associate Professor Genevieve Healy, PhD, University of Queensland

Genevieve Healy

Associate Professor Genevieve Healy, PhD talks about an emerging workplace health and safety issue—sedentary behaviour.

Run time: 9 minutes 50 seconds.

Download a copy of this podcast (MP3, 23 MB)

Speaker 1 (00:05):

Hello, and welcome to this MSD podcast. My guest today is Genevieve Healy, Principal Research Fellow at the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland. Genevieve, welcome.

Genevieve Healy (00:18):

Thank you for having me.

Speaker 1 (00:20):

The Theme of the symposium is safety by design. What does that mean from your perspective?

Genevieve Healy (00:27):

Well, my research is about behavior change and supporting people to sit less and move more. So when I think about safety by design, I'm thinking about how do we design our work spaces and places and our work tasks to encourage more incidental movement. And really, how do we design a culture to enable flexibility to embed activity throughout the day, whether that's taking a break in the middle of the day or having a meeting while you're walking around. So it's designing basis to be safe to work in through inducing more movement throughout the day.

Speaker 1 (01:05):

Now, we've been told and often reminded not to sit for too long at work, for example, but what is the problem? What is wrong with being too sedentary at work?

Genevieve Healy (01:17):

Yeah and the important word that you're really [inaudible 00:01:21] that word is too much sitting because of course, it's okay to sit some of the time. Our bodies need to rest and it's okay to sit. But when we sit for too long, that's when it gets into being a problem. And the problem with it being at work is that we spend so much time at work and whether that's actually going into the office or following the pandemic, there's many of us working from home. A lot of the time while we're working, we're sitting a lot. And the problem with that is that too much sitting has impacts on our health outcomes and more and more evidence is coming out every day on just how much too much sitting can impact on a health across a really wide range of health.

Speaker 1 (02:04):

Could you expand on what some of those might be?

Genevieve Healy (02:08):

Yeah. So we have really strong evidence that too much setting is linked to early deaths. So premature mortality, to heart disease or cardiovascular disease, not just incidents, but also dying from it. So mortality, also incident diabetes. We've also seen it in relationship to cognitive function and depression, physical activities levels, and also musculoskeletal disorders.

Speaker 1 (02:33):

Now, in terms of standing, which one would think is more beneficial. Is it true to say that too much standing can also pose a problem?

Genevieve Healy (02:44):

Yes, definitely. And really are saying is that the best part is the next posture. So you don't want to be in any posture, whether it's sitting for too long or standing too long, you don't want to be in either of those for too long a time. What the research has shown is if sort of more than four hours of standing is too much, but even that's a long time. And when you look at lab studies where they actually get people to stand for continuous periods of time, about 40 minutes, they say, "Try not to stand for more than 40 minutes at a time, particularly if you do have some underlying musculoskeletal symptoms." So what we recommend in our research and in our studies is to try and get up at least every 30 minutes and to try and work towards a 50-50 split across your day.

Genevieve Healy (03:36):

So 50% of sitting and 50% of upright time. So a mix of standing and moving. But don't do it all at once. So don't sit for half the day and be up for the rest of the day. Mix it all up throughout the day.

Speaker 1 (03:49):

That sounds like me. Half the day seated, half the day standing. In work situations, we become so focused on what we do if we have a computer in front of us, sometimes we forget about how long we're sitting.

Genevieve Healy (04:03):

Yes, that's so true. Sitting as a behavior is so habitual and we don't realize all those influences on our behavior. And some of it's just awareness. We just literally aren't realizing that we're sitting for so much. Some of it is the norms and everyone is sitting around us. So you feel like it's a bit weird if you get up. Some of it is that we might not have the equipment to be able to easily keep working while we're either up and moving or up and standing. Some of it's just the policies and practices in the work tasks that we do.

Genevieve Healy (04:36):

So awareness is certainly a key factor to be aware of it because sitting there so habitual. But we also need to be aware that there's so many other drivers on our behavior, besides just what the individual is feeling. And that's where I think that safety by design really comes in. So if we can design our workspace, and our workplace and our work tasks to be supportive of those regular postural movements up and down and to make it really normative, but it's okay for people to be out and about. So my colleagues and I, we often do our meetings while we're on a telephone call walking around the block. If it's just the two of us, we're like, "Let's do a walk and talk." And that is very normative and acceptable in our workplace.

Speaker 1 (05:21):

What other types of changes can workplaces make to better manage the risks and improve the health outcomes for all workers?

Genevieve Healy (05:30):

Having a real step back and assess and evaluation of where they currently are at is important. So understanding the extent of the problem. Understanding, is your workplace one where people are up and moving about regularly? Would people feel comfortable standing and stretching during a meeting? What would colleagues think if they saw someone regularly leave their desk or schedule in a regular exercise break when working from? And if the answer isn't, "That's just part of the culture here," then there's some systemic issues that can really be addressed through quite simple means, but you have to look at the whole picture.

Genevieve Healy (06:13):

So it's about measuring the extent of the problem, raising awareness so people realize the health impacts of too much sitting and helping to support, build that culture of change. And I lead a program called BeUpstanding, which is an evidence-based program. And it's about supporting workplaces to sit less and move more through raising awareness and creating that cultural change. And it's really useful because it gives all the resources and tools a workplace champion needs to take up and deliver and evaluate the program and their workplace. So from my perspective, I would say, have a look at our free program and see how that can be used in their workplace. But there are just those simple things of understanding the extent of the problem, raising awareness and helping support build that culture of change so that moving more and sitting less is really the normal way of working.

Speaker 1 (07:02):

2020 saw a lot of us working from home and for some long periods, months if not ongoing today, what's your understanding about people's work style at home? Do you think we're more conscious of sitting and standing or has it become worse or is it too early to say?

Genevieve Healy (07:25):

I think we certainly need some more data. We collected some data from our people in our BeUpstanding study. And what we found is that for some working from home gave them a lot more freedom to be more active and that they were able to move around a lot more. For some, because they didn't have whether it's supportive equipment, whether it was the cues from other workers, whether it's just that, "Oh, I'll pop off around the corner to see that colleague," those little work tasks to get them up and moving.

Genevieve Healy (07:56):

They actually found themselves sitting a lot more. And from what I've seen of the research evidence coming out, that's true for a lot of places. For some, they get a lot more activity from working from home, for some, they actually sit a lot more. So really how do workplaces grapple with that and where workplaces looking to understand, and we're doing some research coming up on that. So how do we address that issue with this new hybrid way of working where people are likely to spend at least some time at home and in the workplace for many people?

Speaker 1 (08:30):

And what's the general discussion, or what are some of the points that are being raised early in that discussion?

Genevieve Healy (08:39):

I think what comes to mind a little bit is the role of how do we embed a health and wellbeing culture when we're not seeing people? How do we connect people virtually? That's the discussions that I'm hearing. How do we create that feeling of togetherness when we're living apart and not being in the same space? Because the workplace is well known for being such a great place for health promotion and for change initiatives, because you can address so many influences on the behavior within the one setting and you can change your policies and you can do all of group activities with people all in that one space. But if they're not in the one space and you don't have as much control and you're not seeing each other, how do you create that same health and wellbeing culture? So that to me is what I'm hearing people are grappling with.

Speaker 1 (09:34):

That's a really interesting point and one, no doubt for further discussion, Genevieve Haley, thank you so much for your time today. Really insightful and good luck with all the work that you're doing, the ongoing work as well.

Genevieve Healy (09:48):

Thank you so much. It's been an absolute pleasure.