Working from home, the closure of sports centres, lockdown… the arsenal of current measures which are necessary to fight the pandemic can lead to an increasing physical inactivity. The sedentary lifestyle has a direct financial impact on businesses. Studies available on the effects of a sedentary lifestyle at work show that it not only increases the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, which is the number one occupational illness, but also chronic diseases, such as diabetes, which can then lead to an increase in time off work. This article reviews the consequences of a sedentary lifestyle on employee health and provides solutions to help companies protect employees who have to work from home.

The French are spending more and more time sitting down

1. What do we mean by the word ‘sedentary’?

According to the French National Conservatory for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviours (Onaps), a person is sedentary if they remain seated 7 hours a day or more. In Europe, 70% of the population spend more than 8 hours a day sitting down, whilst the French spend around 7.26 hours a day sitting! Travelling by car and working in front of a screen are factors that are leading modern societies to become ever more sedentary.

2. Physical inactivity: a fast growing trend with the rise in working from home

For millions of employees, lockdown and then subsequently continuing working from home to combat the COVID-19 epidemic may unsurprisingly be leading to an increase in sedentary habits, and with it, an increase in the associated negative effects. Working long hours in front of a screen could be harmful to our mental and physical health.

Is sitting the new smoking? The risks of working from home on our health

1. MSDs: No. 1 consequence of working from home

French employee representative bodies (known as Social and economic committees) were able to assess the consequences of remote working during the first lockdown, between March and May 2020, and draw lessons from it. While advantages have been noted, several disadvantages have emerged, such as the increase in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Employees had to quickly improvise an office at home and did not always have adequate ergonomic equipment to hand. A bad sitting position can lead to back, neck, shoulder and wrist pain, resulting in the development of lower back pain. A study carried out by Public Health France on the behaviour of French people in light of Covid-19 reveals that around 10% of respondents developed lower back pain for the first time during the spring lockdown.

2. Working from home and physical inactivity: the long term effects are even more harmful

Being sedentary can also lead to much more serious illnesses. According to the World Health Organization, a lack of physical activity is considered the fourth highest risk factor for death worldwide (6%). The list of negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle on the health of your employees is long! Being sedentary is associated with an increased risk of developing or worsening chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and osteoporosis. In France, 15 to 20% of the working population are affected by a chronic disease.

  • The more you sit, the more you want to eat!

Obesity is one of the most serious consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. Why is this? Paradoxically, being less active makes us want to eat even more. According to the National Observatory for Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviours (Onaps), "When we are inactive, we tend to eat more than necessary and we tend to eat foods that are often rich in fat and sugar." It just takes a 15% increase in the time spent in a sitting position during the day on a regular basis for metabolic disorders to appear. Weight gain is not the only consequence. Obesity is itself a risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. There is a proven link between obesity and the risk of complications, not only because of related pathologies, but also independently of them.

  • Physical inactivity: worse than smoking?

In fact, some specialists are now comparing a sedentary lifestyle to smoking. According to Paul Menu, Cardiac Surgeon and member of the French Federation of Cardiology, “studies show that physical inactivity has become the number one preventable cause of death in the world. That means it’s a bigger threat to our health than tobacco. A sedentary lifestyle kills people more than tobacco, and this is particularly linked to screen time.’’

Remaining seated for 4 hours a day or more is associated with a rapid increase in mortality. Working sitting down for more than 4 hours a day increases mortality by 2% for each additional hour, for more than 8 hours, it goes up by 8% per additional hour, and sitting for more than 10 hours a day increases mortality by 34%!

The psychological risks associated with working from home

1. Loneliness, staying connected at all hours: working from home impacts on mental health

In addition to the risks to physical health which a sedentary lifestyle brings with it, other psychological disadvantages can develop when working from home, like the one we are now experiencing. Working alone at home and being available online all the time creates an imbalance between your professional and personal life which has its own consequences.

According to a Global Study by Oracle & Workplace Intelligence on AI at Work, the main effects of working from home on mental health are: “Lack of sleep (40%), a deterioration of physical health (35%), a drop in how happy we are at home (33%), difficulties with family relationships (30%) and a form of social isolation (28%).’’

2. Employees are calling for their employers to take more preventative action.

According to another study by Malakoff Humanis, employees are increasingly concerned about their wellbeing and their health, and are asking their employers to do something about it. 86% of employees expect their employer to “integrate prevention and health into their long term strategy” and more than 85% want the role of people” in the company to be strengthened.

How can companies find a solution to this trend?

According to Article L. 4121-1 of the French Labour Code “the employer is required by law to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of their employees and protect their physical and mental health. The employer must not only reduce risk, but prevent it. This is an obligation of result (Labour Chamber, Court of Cassation, 22 February, 2002, Appeal n° 99-18389). In the event of an accident or illness related to working conditions, the employer may be held responsible”.

The company also has everything to gain from protecting its employees. “Several North American studies have found that the return on investment for companies taking measures to combat physical inactivity can be up to four times higher due to the drop in absenteeism, group insurance contributions and employee turnover.”

1. Share best practices to change habits!

In order to limit the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, employers can put in place a number of recommended best practices to combat their employees being sedentary and promote a culture of sport and physical activity in the company. Health experts offer solutions tailored to the business world to help your employees keep more active!

Tips on how to spend less time sitting:

In its Coviprev investigation on this issue during lockdown, the French National Public Health Agency (SpF) recommended the following good habits:

  • Get up and move around several times an hour. During lockdown, they recommended doing this at least every half hour;
  • Organise meetings which take place standing up or walking around when team members are together;
  • Suggest making all phone calls standing rather than seated;
  • Ask team members to use the stairs instead of the lift when your employees are in the office.

Did you know? The WHO recommends taking 10,000 steps a day to stay healthy. Nowadays, everyone can check how many steps they take each day, and even their weekly average, using their smartphone. I’ll say no more!

2. Make it easier for employees to do physical exercise and take part in sports activities

There are several ways companies can facilitate access to sports activities for their employees, such as offering their employees gym memberships or organising wellness activities like relaxation therapy. These activities can still be offered even if the actual facilities are closed, by offering online courses using apps or YouTube channels. It’s more important than ever for your employees to keep active!

Companies have now developed several ways of expanding access to sports and fitness activities in the workplace. These facilities continue to offer services when the actual gym spaces are closed, offering lessons or individual coaching online. Going digital is also a good way to make sport fun and accessible for your employees. Because they need to keep active now more than ever!