Just last week, NIOSH Total Worker Health hosted a webinar that examined sedentary work and its implications on health.  We are all aware that sedentary lifestyles lead to poorer health outcomes – such as weight gain, cardiovascular problems, and musculoskeletal injuries.  But is active work the answer to improving worker health?  And are interventions that address these problems worth the investment?  We address these questions and more below.

This webinar was moderated by NIOSH Total Worker Health Director L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH.  The featured presenters included: Nathan Fethke, PhD, CPE (University of Iowa); Jennifer Hess, PhD, MPH, DC (University of Oregon); Dinesh John, PhD (Northeastern University); Michael T. Sliter, PhD (FurstPerson, Inc.); and Manuel Cifuentes, MD, ScD, MPH (University of Massachusetts Medical School).  They covered some hot topics, including the effects of sedentary work on physical health, functional fitness and musculoskeletal problems, and the effects of being active at work.  The presenters finally delved into sit-stand stations and active workstations in practice and shared some hopeful findings – sit-stand (static) or treadmill (dynamic) work stations showed clear improvements in energy and neural function from increased blood flow and decreased blood sugar, with changes being significant for dynamic work stations.  The presenters also revealed some not-so-obvious results of active workstations, such as standing all day can actually cause soreness and pain.

At HealthyWorkplaces, we know that many of the health problems and negative work outcomes we see in workers comes from an interaction of many factors in the work environment – environmental design, job design, work policies, work culture, nutrition, etc.  These factors contribute to a worker’s overall feeling of physical comfort and psychological well-being.  Can the growing chronic health problems we see in workers be solved by installing sit-stand/active workstations?  Is it worth the investment?  Sit-stand/active desks may not be the answer, but there are clear improvements when we see people getting out of their seats at least every hour.

The research indicates that it’s all about getting people out of their seats, but this alone seems to be very difficult to do.  People want or have to sit in seats for a long time.  Knowledge workers such as computer programmers who work intimately with computers get into a pace of work where they can go for hours at a time working in their seats.  Some office workers are incentivized, either by the work culture or by wage policies, to fill their hours with as much work as possible.  Workers like bus drivers or pilots are confined to their seats by the very nature of their jobs.  We will not make the biggest impact on worker health by just addressing the sitting issue, we need to address the greater work design issues.

We need to therefore consider the bigger context of how office work is performed, and what are all the different ways to build in or incentivize moving and getting out of our seats throughout the day.  All of the most successful interventions are those that build in these healthy elements into the workplace – having healthy practices be the norm, not the option.

So if integrating active workstations is a part of an organization’s overall plan to build healthy components into the workplace, and if workers can be incentivized to actually change their behavior and use them, then we say yes, it is worth the investment.  The evidence shows that when workers are healthy, energized, and focused, they will be more productive than those who are not – and this is a clear return on investment.  It is possible to create a workspace where workers are not only safe, but feel their best and want to work.  NIOSH’s TWH webinar touched upon an important chapter of the book, and we look forward to more discussions on safety and health with experts in the field.

Upcoming and past NIOSH TWH webinars can be accessed on their site:http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/webinar.html