A version of this article was originally posted on the website of Wellness Designs.
Sitting still all day, often with bad posture and without doing any exercise, has well-known negative effects on our health and wellbeing. Many workers in sedentary jobs experience some sort of discomfort in their body, ranging from slight numbness or tingling in their extremities to excruciating pain. While mild physical discomfort can be distracting, more severe pain can also be draining and debilitating. Excessive sick leave, workers’ compensation claims and loss of productivity – all associated with sedentary work – impose a significant burden on organisations.
On the other hand, the benefits of a work environment that supports good posture and promotes regular physical movement are much wider than just improved comfort and health. There’s a strong physiological link between the state of our body and our mental functioning, and so our body can be used as a tool to significantly boost our brain-power and productivity.
This means that while the traditional, ‘one-dimensional’ workplace model – forcing workers to sit still all day – limits potential, work environments and practices where people’s minds and bodies are put to work present excellent opportunities to increase performance.
Here are a few workplace strategies for tapping into these opportunities. These require relatively little investment, and are well worth the results.
1. Promote empowering and healthy posture
Sedentary work cannot and doesn’t need to be completely eliminated, but allowing your people to sit in an empowering posture will make them happier and better workers; here is the reason why …
We all know from experience that the way we feel and think influences how we hold ourselves. When we feel energised and confident, we naturally hold ourselves up straight, and when we are overcome by negative emotions, we tend to hunch our back and keep our head low. Well, this also works the other way around; an empowering posture can make us feel more energised and positive, while bad posture can make us feel stressed and depressed.
Tip: Invest in good quality ergonomic chairs, tables and other workstation accessories, with sufficient easy-to-use adjustable features enabling a highly customised setup. Your furniture choices should also consider the devices your people use; for example, some chair types are specifically developed to support the use of mobile devices. To ensure that workstations are set up and used properly, it can be beneficial to organise staff training on office ergonomics. (This is especially important in workplaces where people sit in a different spot every day.)
2. Allow people to switch between different postures
Regularly changing the way we sit reduces the strains sedentary work impose on our body. And there are also other benefits:
1. When sitting on tall bar-style chairs, we are inclined to think and communicate in a casual manner as if we were in a bar. When sitting on the floor, we feel a bit like children, and our thinking tends to be more uninhibited. And when sitting on traditional office chairs, we tend to think in a more structured way and act more compliant. Having the opportunity to choose between different settings makes it easier for us to feel, think and act the way that’s most beneficial for the task at hand.
2. The neurological connections between our body and brain are so intertwined that when we keep working on a problem in the same position for a long time our unconscious mind learns to associate that posture with that problem. Shifting our posture triggers changes in our thinking, and can help us overcome mental blocks and see things from a fresh perspective.
Tip: Provide different types of seating throughout the workplace, for example: office chairs, sofas, benches, floor cushions, fitness balls, sitting blocks, and tall stools.
3. Invite people to stand up
Standing while working is an increasingly popular office ‘invention’. Some people only stand for short periods of time during the day, while others choose to stand all day (thought it’s recommended to get used to this gradually). Either way, they tend to find that standing makes them more alert, focused and energised, and that their body feels better too.
Tip: Consider providing standing or sit-stand height-adjustable desks accessible by all (these could also be ‘hot desks’ shared between several people). Also, your short meetings could be standing meetings.
4. Encourage people to ‘think with their body’
Our body is a wonderful but often underutilised tool for learning, solving problems and expressing ourselves. Many of us learn or engage with a subject better when we have the opportunity to feel it through touch and/or physical movement, rather than performing purely mental activities. Unlike those old-style offices filled up with a sea of desks, some of the most innovative workspaces offer ample opportunities for people to use their ‘body intelligence’.
Tip: To promote a physically active way of working, consider providing facilities for activities such as: writing and drawing freehand, using flip-charts, engaging in role-playing, building physical models and prototypes, creating storyboards and mind-maps, and playing with tactile items during thinking time.
5. Create opportunities for physical activity
Beyond its well-known health benefits, physical movement increases blood flow to the brain and enhances brain function. It decreases stress, lifts mood, enhances our intellectual skills, and also improves our memory and reasoning skills.
While encouraging exercise is a great idea (e.g. by providing a gym and cycling facilities), there are also many ways that physical movement can be integrated into work. Encouraging people to walk a bit of a distance within the office is a common design strategy. You may locate essential facilities such as printers or storage in far corners, or make it easier to use stairs than lifts. These might be a good start, but you shouldn’t stop there.
Tip: You may consider investing in ‘treadmill desks’, a recent innovation enabling workers to use their computer while walking at a slow pace. (While its health and productivity benefits are not yet established, it is quickly gaining popularity.) Or if you are among the adventurous, you could acquire something similar to Google’s ‘meeting bikes’ which allow several people to meet, work, exercise and have fun at the same time. But if you prefer keeping things simple but still effective, you could organise walking meetings, and combining team activities with exercise. Once your people see the value in standing up and taking a break from the computer screen, the possibilities are limitless.