Evidence suggests that prolonged sitting is common in Australian workplaces.
It is associated with significant negative health outcomes and is increasingly being recognised in the community as an important issue that needs attention.
- 50% of Australian workers have jobs that involve sitting at least some of the time.
As part of our Emerging Issues Programme to identify, prioritise and systematically consider emerging WHS issues of national importance, we commissioned a team of experts to examine the most recent evidence from Australia and overseas on sedentary work, its likely consequences and potential control options.
The review was carried out by academics from Curtin University, the Baker IDI group and the University of Queensland. The results were published in 2016 in Sedentary Work—Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issue.
Sedentary work: a definition
Sedentary behaviour is defined as anything you do while you are sitting or reclining.
- Examples of common sedentary behaviours for workers include computer-based tasks, truck driving or operating a crane.
There is no clear definition of excessive occupational sitting exposure. However, sitting for longer than 30 minutes without a mini-break and sitting all day at work (being ‘too busy’ to take a break) are likely to be detrimental to your health.
Prolonged sitting is associated with a range of health problems including:
- musculoskeletal disorders
- cardiovascular disease
- poor mental health
- some cancers
- premature death.
The negative health effects from prolonged sitting are due to:
- insufficient movement and muscle activity
- low energy expenditure
- not moving enough
- not changing posture enough.
Workplace health and safety issue
We have identified too much sitting as a potential WHS issue based on:
- a rapidly growing body of scientific evidence on the potential harms and increasing public awareness of these
- a high proportion of workers with exposure to sitting
- recent recognition by various national and international authorities of sedentary behaviour as a health concern
- emerging evidence of effective and feasible risk controls.
Measuring sedentary work
To properly characterise sedentary behaviour three aspects need to be measured, including:
- The total amount of exposure, for example how much sedentary time is there per day?
- The pattern of sedentary behaviour, for example is it accumulated in prolonged bouts?
- The nature/context of the behaviour, for example is it accumulated sitting in a truck?
Ways of measuring the extent of sedentary work can include:
- self-report or diaries
- occupational coding using databases
- objective measurements using small devices (such as accelerometers and inclinometers).
There is increasing evidence that patterns of exposure may be relevant for understanding associations with health.
For example, a total daily exposure of four hours of sedentary time is likely to be considered a low overall exposure. If it were accumulated in 10 minute bouts across the whole day, then the associated risk is likely to be very low. However, if it were accumulated in one prolonged bout of four hours, the risk of adverse outcomes with regular exposure may be quite high.
Sedentary exposure is akin to sun exposure: a little can be helpful but too much can damage your health. More than seven hours overall sedentary behaviour per day is likely to be detrimental to health and therefore considered excessive.
Given the proportion of time many adults spend at work, occupational sitting exposure contributes significantly to the overall sedentary exposure for many workers regardless of whether they are ‘white’ or ‘blue’ collar workers.
Ways to reduce occupational sitting
When it comes to addressing occupational sitting exposure, your mantra should be ‘reduce and interrupt’.
The figure below shows how the hazard of sedentary work can be reduced by substituting and interrupting sitting time.
We have published a handbook on the Principles of Good Work Design that outlines 10 principles that can achieve good design of work and work processes. The principles are all general in nature so they can be applied to any workplace.
Examples of interventions
Examples of substituting sitting with non-sedentary tasks include:
- switching to work on a computer at a standing workstation
- standing to read a document
- having a standing or walking meeting
- standing while talking on the phone
- walking to deliver a message to a colleague rather than emailing.
Two things to remember:
- A worker can be physically active and meet the guidelines of at least 2.5–5 hours of moderate intensity or ‘huff and puff’ physical activity per week, and still spend much of their time being sedentary.
- Health problems caused by prolonged sitting remain even if you exercise vigorously every day, highlighting the fact that excessive sitting and physical inactivity are separate health hazards.
SWA is not a regulator and cannot advise you about work health and safety compliance. If you need help, please contact your state or territory work health and safety authority.