Heart attack. Obesity. Diabetes. Depression. Premature death. Hardly terms you’d associate with an ordinary day at the office. Yet the alarming truth is your job could be sending you to an early grave.
There is mounting evidence that noxious air, stress, long hours and poor diet all add up to a ticking health timebomb.
Just sitting down for long periods of time could be as harmful as smoking. Research by the American College of Cardiology found that prolonged sitting is linked to increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer, and could be just as dangerous, if not more so, to the cardiovascular system as smoking.
Research by the American College of Cardiology found that prolonged sitting is linked to increased risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer (stock image)
And look no further than the dreaded office ‘feeder’ for the reason you’re piling on the pounds.
A study by the Co-op revealed that desk-bound UK office workers put on an average 10 lb in their first year of employment, with 64 per cent of people blaming co-workers for bringing in too many cakes and other tempting treats.
But help is at hand. We’ve asked health experts to identify the dangers, and the changes you need to make to minimise the damage.
Are you sitting too comfortably? Then we’ll begin…
Nearly six million UK workers don’t leave their desk for lunch and less than one in six get away for the full hour (stock image)
QUIT THE OFFICE CANTEEN: AND DON’T EAT ‘AL-DESKO’
THE PROBLEM: One Briton in four is obese, and at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and infertility.
Nearly six million UK workers don’t leave their desk for lunch and less than one in six get away for the full hour, according to Bupa.
A lack of breaks, stress and tiredness means many workers are reaching for the wrong foods when looking for a quick food fix.
‘If you are sitting at a desk, not only does your metabolism drop to nothing, your appetite increases by doing computer-based work,’ says Professor John Buckley of the University Centre Shrewsbury.
Shift work also wreaks havoc with diet, with 700,000 of the 1.2 million-strong NHS workforce overweight or obese.
Many shift workers are faced with a limited choice of sugary snacks from machines or calorie-laden canteen meals.
A third of NHS canteens don’t offer the same healthy daytime menu to evening staff, according to NHS Employers.
SOLUTION: Prepare nutritious meals and snacks at home so you can control portion size, says Dr John Challenor, a consultant occupational physician.
And don’t mindlessly eat at your desk. Take a screen break somewhere quiet and concentrate on how much you’re eating.
Slouching at your desk can stretch the muscles and ligaments and lead to kyphosis, a curvature of the spine (stock image)
COMPUTER CROUCH: IT WILL WRECK EYES, NECK AND BACK
THE PROBLEM: While sitting all day comes with its own risks, sitting in front of a computer is even worse.
When office workers are intently focused, they frequently adopt a ‘computer crouch’ – shoulders hunched, back caved outwards and eyes fixed on the screen.
‘If you spend hours in front of a keyboard you’ll get aches and pains in your hands, arms, neck, shoulders and back,’ Dr Challenor says.
This slouching can stretch the muscles and ligaments and lead to kyphosis, a curvature of the spine.
Prolonged screen time also takes a toll on the eyes. Up to 90 per cent of computer-users experience problems such as eye strain, headaches, dry eyes, and double vision or blurred vision, according to researchers at the SUNY College of Optometry in New York.
THE SOLUTION: Check your posture: adjust your chair so you use the keyboard with your wrists and forearms straight and level with the floor, rest your feet flat on the floor and place your screen at eye level.
Dr Challenor advises selecting an adequate font size, brightness and contrast on screen, and shifting your gaze away from the screen regularly.
BEWARE THE OFFICE BULLY: AND BE PREPARED TO QUIT IF IT CARRIES ON
THE PROBLEM: Workplace stress, triggered by job insecurity, tight deadlines, office politics or bullying bosses, is the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
While pressure is a good thing, stress is not. ‘When pressure exceeds an individual’s ability to cope with it, that’s stress,’ says Sir Cary Cooper. ‘The less control you have over your job, the more you’ll get ill.’
Workplace stress, triggered by job insecurity, tight deadlines, office politics or bullying bosses, is the leading cause of sickness absence (stock image)
THE SOLUTION: Most bosses will appreciate an honest discussion.
But if they are simply a bully and not open to communication, Sir Cary’s advice is simple: ‘Find another job. Don’t do it right away. Just go find a job and then leave. The costs to your health simply aren’t worth staying.’
BREATHE EASY: OPEN WINDOWS
THE PROBLEM: Does your health deteriorate the moment you get into the office? Your workplace could have Sick Building Syndrome (SBS), a phenomenon thought to be caused by poor ventilation and airborne particles such as dust, carpet fibres, fungal spores and chemical pollutants from cleaning materials and equipment such as photocopiers. Symptoms that are linked to spending time in a ‘sick’ building include headaches, nausea, poor concentration, shortness of breath and skin irritation. SBS is also associated with libraries, schools and museums
THE SOLUTION: Open windows when you can and report any signs of poor air quality to management, Dr Challenor says. Employers have a legal obligation to investigate complaints.
WORK TILL WE DROP: SO TRY TO TURN OFF
THE PROBLEM: Research has found employees who work longer hours have a higher risk of a stroke, and double their risk of becoming depressed.
A study by the Trades Union Congress found nearly three-and-a-half million British workers clock up more than 48 hours a week, with one in 25 men toiling for over 60 hours.
‘If you consistently work long hours, you will get ill, be that physically or mentally,’ says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Alliance Manchester Business School. And it’s not just staying late that is bad for health: psychologists warn that constant email notifications are a ‘toxic’ source of stress.
THE SOLUTION: Sir Cary recommends planning non-work activities three nights a week, such as going to the gym or seeing a movie.
Having commitments means that you have to leave the office at a reasonable time. And turn off your work mobile phone when you’re at home.
STAND UP: THE DANGER IN YOUR OFFICE CHAIR
We are sitting ourselves to death, says Dr James Levine, author of Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You. The link between poor health and sitting first emerged back in the 1950s, when it was found that London bus drivers were twice as likely to have heart attacks as conductors.
A modern-day University of Leicester study of 800,000 people revealed those who sat the longest had an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular events or heart attacks and a greater chance of premature death compared to those who sat the least.
A study of 800,000 people revealed those who sat the longest had an increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular events or heart attacks (stock image)
British people sit for almost nine hours a day on average – and office workers spend up to three-quarters of their working day on their posterior, according to a study led by Professor John Buckley of the University Centre Shrewsbury.
‘The time you spend sitting impacts metabolism, your muscles and joints and your brain,’ says Prof Buckley, a professor of applied exercise science.
THE SOLUTION: Standing desks or treadmill desks are becoming more popular, but if these aren’t an option, just take a break.
‘Being on your feet for as little as five minutes an hour may have some benefits,’ Prof Buckley says. ‘It’s a small change, but done over a long period of time it will have a positive effect.’