Dr Daniel Bailey: The impact of office life on employee health

Dr Daniel Bailey

Office life is often not good for our health. This is because our blood sugar levels, cholesterol and blood pressure can increase when sitting for extended periods, due to very limited muscle contractions, which help to control risk markers that lead to certain conditions.

When sitting for long periods each day, we’re 112% more likely to be at risk of diabetes, 147% of heart disease, 90% of dying from heart disease, and 49% of dying from any cause, compared to  people who spend a large part of their day moving around on their feet. This is according to Sedentary time in adults and the association with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and death: systematic review and meta-analysis, published in Diabetologia in August 2012.

High amounts of sitting can also lead to musculoskeletal problems due to extended periods of time with poor posture and repeated stress being placed on certain joints and muscles.

Office workers also tend to perceive themselves as having high job demands and low levels of job control. This demand-control combination can contribute to the production of high levels of cortisol, known as our stress hormone, and these increased stress levels can lead to a higher risk of heart disease.

Those who engage in some physical exercise during their leisure time can help lower their risk of disease, decrease stress levels, and feel more energised at work. Taking breaks away from the computer can help reduce musculoskeletal pain and discomfort, and breaking up long periods of sitting with short, frequent bouts of activity, such as slow walking or standing, can also help to maintain healthy blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

However, we should not forget that some people may have an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, regardless of the amount of time spent exercising; those who go to the gym most days of the week are still at risk if they sit for long periods every day.

In daily life in the office, there are small changes employees can make to their eating habits to help keep blood sugar levels down. For example, they should avoid selecting meals and drinks that contain a lot of refined sugar, such as refined cereals, white bread, potatoes, doughnuts and energy drinks. Instead, they should choose porridge, grainy or wholemeal bread, nuts and water. It’s also important to make sure we don’t consume too many calories each day because working in an office and not exercising means the body isn’t burning as much energy, which can lead to weight gain and contribute to increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

Dr Daniel Bailey is a senior lecturer in health, nutrition and exercise at the University of Bedfordshire.