The average person will spend almost 100,000 hours at work over their lifetime. And these days the vast majority of professional workers will be sitting at a desk to do it.
Sydney consultant in occupational health and physiotherapy Dr Karin Griffiths says modern workers are increasingly desk-bound. Whereas we once had to walk to the cabinet to grab a file or down the hallway to talk to a colleague, we can now do almost everything seated at our desks – from communication to research, file retrieval and even meetings.
“It doesn’t matter how good the chair is,” says Dr Griffiths. “It is not going to address what some researchers are calling ‘chair disease’. Ergonomic desk design has come a long way, but hasn’t kept pace with changes in the way we work. Dr Griffiths’ own research, conducted at Sydney University, found about 85 per cent of people who spent more than eight hours a day working at a computer experienced neck pain. About three in four reported shoulder and lower back pain.
Dr Griffiths also found extended periods of sitting at a desk were a strong contributing factor to musculoskeletal damage, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
“We need to design workspaces and jobs so that people are required to move around more,” she says. “We need a better balance between sitting, standing and walking.”
Physiologist Nicholas Karam, from consultancies CHANGE Health Solutions and Elite Exercise Sydney, gives his top tips for staying healthy at work.
1. Move more
“Don't get stuck in your chair,” Karam explains. “You should be rotating your posture every 30 to 45 minutes.” A lunchtime walk will help your body relax and improve your mood. Throughout the day, try regular strolls around the office. “As long as it’s done frequently and for at least a minute or two, it will give the muscles time to relax and avoid fatigue.”
Prevention is better than cure. Basic workstation stretches should target your neck, back, shoulders and hamstrings. These can be done at your desk or standing. “Mostly it is lack of awareness and education that stops people doing it,” says Karam.
3. Sit properly
Keep your hips back in the chair and avoid reaching. Direct eye-level should be mid-screen. If you are on a laptop, watch your usage times. “Never use a laptop on a desk for more than half an hour to an hour,” Karam warns. “Your shoulders are internally rotated and your neck position poor when you use a laptop.”
4. Pack your lunch
Try nuts, fresh fruit and a grilled chicken sandwich on wholegrain bread. According to Karam, “Wholegrain bread keeps you fuller for longer because it’s denser and has a low GI which means it releases energy slowly.” Coffee is also fine but avoid sugar and watch your milk intake. Keep a carafe of water on your desk to hit your eight-glass-a-day target.
5. Keep stress at bay
Work-life balance might be a cliché but it’s essential, says Karam. “Don’t let stress build up. Take action to nip it in the bud.” Getting the right balance between being productive at work and taking pleasure in your personal life will make workplace stress easier to cope with. “Find your balance of performance,” he says.
“What type of stress levels do you work with best? Some stress is normal and good for you. If there are any issues at work, seek help immediately.”