We have just twenty years before the physical effects of a desk-bound office job will become starkly apparent, according to a new report. More than 3000 employees in France, Germany and the UK were interviewed about their health concerns as part of a study to examine the impact that modern workstations are having on our health. Based on their findings, researchers were able to predict profound changes in the human body over the next two decades. They then created a life-sized dummy to illustrate exactly how we could all eventually look unless some key changes are made to our working environment.
The resulting mannequin, known as Emma, displays a disturbingly altered anatomy. She suffers from a multitude of health issues, manifesting in some shocking physical distortion. Sitting for hours with bad posture and making repetitive movements has led to a permanently bent back, rotund stomach and swollen wrists and ankles, plus varicose veins from poor blood flow. Staring at a computer screen has caused dry, sore eyes and regular contact with laptop heat has resulted in red upper arms. In addition, she has a hairy nose and ears triggered by poor air quality, sallow skin from years under the glare of artificial light, and stress-induced eczema.
It is a truly cautionary tale. Some are saying it’s akin to the neglect of workers during the Industrial Revolution. UK office workers spend an average of six hours each day sitting at a desk and more than 90% of those interviewed reported existing health issues that reduced their productivity. Almost half suffered from eye strain, sore backs or headaches caused by their inadequate workspace, and seven out of ten workers regularly take medication to combat these complaints.
The report calls for radical changes in working conditions to protect employee health. At a minimum, staff are urged to take regular breaks from their desk, reduce uninterrupted screen time and address their posture. The report also seeks to mandate the availability of more ergonomic office furniture, such as sit stand desks, which have been proven to help prevent workers from developing long-term health conditions.
Employers have an obligation to ensure the safety of their work environment. In fact, workstation assessments are a legal requirement across Europe. However the report indicates some may be shirking their responsibilities in this area, with more than a third of employees stating they had not been offered an assessment since starting their job. And among those who had asked for an improvement in conditions, 28% reported that their issues had not been addressed.
Employees are entitled to raise a grievance against their employer if they do not have access to a chair with the right amount of support, or if their desk and monitor are not at the correct height. There should always be adequate lighting and ventilation, and the opportunity to get away from their desk on a regular basis. Emma is a rude awakening to what an absence of any of these factors might cause, and also a reminder of something we know to be true – the more variety people have in their jobs, and the more control they have over their work-life balance, the happier they are. Physical and mental health improves and this ultimately leads to a more productive workplace. So while it is crucial for employers to ensure legal compliance at the basic level, the higher we aim in terms of working environment standards, the more rewards there will be across the board. Work-related sick days cost the economy £77 billion each year. Alongside the necessary workplace improvements, employers picking up on and addressing signs of ill health early, and also making sure return-to-work interviews are conducted after sickness absence, will definitely see an upturn in staff attendance.
There are other simple ideas that can be incorporated to seek further balance. Standing meetings are becoming more popular due to their time efficiency. Then there are companies that encourage their staff to take a walk together at lunch time. Something like a table tennis or foosball table in the communal area of an office can also provide a welcome opportunity for a much-needed break.