The news earlier this year that prolonged sitting can be deadly seemed to confirm many office workers' sneaking suspicion that they weren't meant to spend all day in a desk chair. Or, more dramatically, that their jobs were slowly killing them. It isn't just the sitting. It's the stress, inflexible schedules, ever increasing pressure to perform, layoffs, and windowless cubicles. It's a recipe for high blood pressure, weight gain, bad posture, and general unhealthiness.
A recent study from the University of Rochester Medical Center found that chronic job stress is associated with weight gain and obesity. Researchers studied nearly 3,000 workers at an upstate New York manufacturing facility and found that many workers spent their days stressed out and sedentary and spent their nights watching TV. "We found that people were so stressed that by the time they got back home, they didn't feel like doing anything but vegging out," says Diana Fernandez, a URMC epidemiologist and lead author of the study. When layoffs were coming, anxious workers consumed the most unhealthy foods in vending machines first. "People who work in very high-stress jobs seem to do less physical activity and engage in sedentary behaviors," Fernandez says.
But workers are able to make changes for themselves. More and more will be seeking new jobs in the coming months as the job market improves, but many may find that stress is a constant in any job they jump to. While not every change is possible for every worker or something that can be maintained every day, here are 10 moves that could make your job healthier:
Stop eating at your desk: This can get pretty gross. If you let bits of your snacks and lunches and vending machine booty slip into your computer keyboard during the day, don't be surprised to learn that they're luring vermin out a night. According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, workers who sit at dirty desks may be typing on keyboards and touching spaces that have mouse droppings. Get those infested fingers near your mouth and there's a good chance you'll get sick.
Add plants to your area: A Washington State University study measured the effects of indoor plants on students performing a slightly stressful computer-based task in a university computer lab. When researchers decorated the lab with indoor plants, they found that their subjects' reactions were 12 percent quicker on the task, and their systolic blood pressure fell. The students also reported that they felt more attentive when the plants were in the room.
Improve your posture: Bad posture can cause everything from eye strain to lower back pain. A study last year by researchers from the Teesside University School of Health and Social Care in England found that sitting on a stability ball does not provide any benefit to seating posture over sitting on the standard desk chair. A different study on the proper position of your desk chair found that sitting up straight is not ideal—rather, leaning your chair back at an 135 degree angle is best.
Find a way to reduce work pressure: It's easier said than done, but it could save your life. Women in high-pressure jobs are at a higher risk of heart disease. A 15-year Danish study tracked the health of 12,116 nurses ages 45 to 64 in 1993. Those who reported work pressures as being a little too high were 25 percent more likely to have ischaemic heart disease, and those who felt the pressures were much too high were 50 percent more likely to have ischaemic heart disease. Accounting for other lifestyle factors only slightly reduced the risk. Work pressure appears to have the greatest health effects on younger nurses.
Reduce overtime as much as possible: Working three to four hours of overtime a day is bad for your heart, according to a study published on behalf of the European Society of Cardiology. Although some Americans don't have the option of reducing their working hours—they've got to put food on the table, or finish a project—research shows that overtime is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, independent of other factors.
Exercise at lunch: A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that 44 percent of workers report having gained weight while at their current jobs. It lists reasons that make sense: Sitting at a desk nearly all day; stress. Working out during a lunch hour can make a significant difference—although just 11 percent of women and 8 percent of men make that choice.
Don't de-stress with TV at night: Much in the way that adding healthy foods to your diet is only one piece of nutritional health and must be accompanied by reducing unhealthy foods, adding exercise to your lifestyle is only one piece of physical health. You must also reduce the amount of sitting, which is no easy move for someone with a desk job. The authors of a recent editorial for the British Journal of Sports Medicine argue that people should be encouraged not only to workout, but also to stay moving—taking the stairs instead of the elevator or taking a five minute break while doing sedentary work, for example. Too many people work at a desk all day and then head home to watch TV at night. In fact, a study of Australian adults found that a one-hour increase in TV watching increased the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women by 26 percent—regardless of the amount of exercise those women performed.
Request a flexible work arrangement: In some parts of the world, lawmakers have jumped into the debate over flexible work arrangements. Parents with young kids also have a statutory right to ask for flexible work arrangements in the U.K. The benefits of a controllable work schedule are great, even for non-parents. A recent Cochrane review of 10 studies found that control over one's own work hours yielded health benefits in areas such as blood pressure and sleep.
Keep a clean desk: A 2004 study by NEC-Mitsubishi coined a phrase for this: "irritable desk syndrome." Researchers determined that cluttered desks were among the workplace factors making employees ill. Some 2,000 workers were surveyed and 45 percent reported that it was possible to fix the mess of clutter and paper on their desks that increased their stress at work.
Work on your relationship with your boss: You might not think that nurturing a better relationship with your manager would have much impact on your physical health, but it does. For one thing, when advocating for a lighter workload, a more flexible schedule, or less overtime, you'll have a better shot getting what you want if your boss is in your corner. Also, there's evidence that workers who feel they have good bosses appear to have a lower risk of heart disease.