When HR Stands Up for Employee Health, The Workers and the Company Both Benefit

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By Caryn Freeman

Feb. 10 — Sitting has been called the new smoking, and employers are beginning to realize that they need to take measures to address the sedentary nature of most office work.

According to health and office design professionals interviewed by Bloomberg BNA, workplaces that support physical activity throughout the workday improve employee well-being by helping to mitigate some of the serious health risks associated with sedentary office work. Moreover, they assert that a healthy office space is desirable to workers and therefore can help with recruitment and retention, as well as boosting job performance and the corporate bottom-line, and reducing health-care expenses.

Being sedentary has been linked to heart disease, cancer, obesity, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol and poor mental health. Moreover, too much time in front of a computer screen can cause vision trouble such as eye strain, fatigue and dry eyes. Slouching over a keyboard or a smartphone all day can lead to tight neck muscles and repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow and tendonitis.

Roger Sola-Solé, partner at OTJ Architects, a Washington-based architecture and interior design firm specializing in designing healthy workspaces, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 3 that human resources plays a major role in convincing employers to consider a healthy office design.

“When we design offices, we are typically dealing with the CEO, CFO and HR director, and they are very concerned with these issues,” Sola-Solé said. They realize that “people are working a lot more,” he said, “so they understand that the environment becomes key to making people feel comfortable. That level of comfort and ease of the space ties directly into making people more productive; it's a linear relationship.”

Dangers Lurking in the Cubicle

LuAnn Heinen, vice president of workforce well-being, productivity and human capital at the National Business Group on Health, a Washington-based advocacy group representing large employers' perspectives on national health policy issues, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 3 that wellness programs alone do not adequately address health issues associated with sedentary office work.

“We used to associate occupational hazards with physical jobs and white collar workers were thought to be the ones in safe jobs,” she said. “However, based on what we know now, it's turning out not to be true. There are a lot of health risks to cubicle life, but it's not a catastrophe because individuals and employers can do a lot to mitigate; this is really in our control collectively.”

Heinen said addressing health hazards associated with sedentary office work requires a change in company policies and practices. Employers should incorporate health into their vision and values rather than making the company mission simply task oriented, she said. “The Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] has a phrase for that, that is ‘health in all policies.' So you need to have the right policies, the right environment, the right programs, but you also need engagement,” Heinen said.

Dr. Charles M. Yarborough, who sits on the board of directors at the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, told Bloomberg BNA Feb. 10 that employers can benefit from a policy that supports activities related to employee health and provides education on movement, eating and recovery from unhealthy habits.

Yarborough said there are a variety of environmental supports employers can provide, including walking paths, healthy parking spaces and on-site fitness centers.

“Flexible spaces, such as conference rooms, that double as studio space for yoga/Pilates can also support wellness programs, and having a smoke-free workplace policy is important,” he said. He also recommends the development of a “healthy meetings tool-kit” for company meeting planners, which would include ways to support healthy movement and eating.

“Encouraging supervisors to have walking meetings, urging workers to take stretch breaks frequently (perhaps prompted by a computer reminder), developing incentives within pedometer programs and doing ergonomic self-assessments of workstations are examples of quick changes to decrease the deleterious effects of sedentary work,” Yarborough said.

He went on to explain that ACOEM, the nation's largest medical society dedicated to promoting the health of workers, recently published an economic study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showing that companies that build a culture of health by focusing on the well-being and safety of their workforce yield greater value for their investors. “Evidence seems to support that building cultures of health and safety provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace,” Yarborough said. “Also, resilient employees are likely to have lower health-care costs by having reduced need for mental health treatment, fewer injuries (due to enhanced focus, better fitness and reduced fatigue), and decreased future incidence of chronic medical conditions resulting from poor lifestyles.”

Office Designs to Promote Movement

Sola-Solé said that he has seen an uptick in employers redesigning office spaces to address health concerns associated with sedentary office work.

“I would certainly say that these are issues that inform trends and inform how we approach office design,” he said. “Issues of ergonomics and natural light have been things that we really try to address.”

Sola-Solé said OTJ tries to create work environments that foster movement, prompting employees to get up not only to communicate with colleagues but to work at different locations. “Designing small collaborative settings like team rooms and huddle areas that force people to get out of their offices so they just don't sit and expect co-workers to come to them gives employees locations to go to,” he said, “and it forces them to get up and circulate through the space.”

Simple things can significantly reduce sedentary work, Sola-Solé said, such as providing sit/stand type solutions—mechanisms that allow desks to move up and down—and making sure they are fully adjustable and ergonomic.

“One thing that we've been doing is providing standing areas for [employees] to go to and collaborate,” he said. “We typically put those close to the window-line so it promotes the idea of people getting up and going to the window.”

Sola-Solé also noted that the popularity of treadmill desks has increased, adding that one is usually included for public use in office spaces OTJ designs.

‘Permission' to Stand 

Beyond the design of a workspace, employer attitudes also influence worker health.

Heinen said she incorporates physical activity breaks into all of her meetings, adding that giving “permission” to stand is a simple technique more managers should adopt.

“Every time I'm standing in front of an audience, I give permission to people who are seated to stand. I say ‘you don't need to stay in your seat, you're not on an airplane, you can stand up and move,' ” Heinen said. “Just start with giving permission,” she said. “Part of the problem is our culture makes us feel like we have to be seated.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Caryn Freeman in Washington at cfreeman@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com