Learning & Development

3 Ways to Reduce the Health and Economic Implications of Workplace Inactivity 

It’s no secret that we’re all sitting more than we should and that it has negative consequences for both our physical and our mental health. Research shows that this inactivity also has economic implications for employers, costing companies hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. 

As the pandemic subsides and we settle into a new hybrid work culture, our own research found there are some easy ways for HR teams to counter this trend and help improve both employee health and the corporate bottom line. 

Sitting Is the New Smoking

The dangers of excessive sitting are well known. Even if you have physically active employees who exercise after work hours or on the weekends, high amounts of sedentary behavior during the day may still increase risks for developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and overall premature mortality

This is cause for concern, as sedentary behavior has reached an alarmingly high level. (Chances are, you’re sitting right now.) But these effects have implications beyond an employee’s individual health. It can negatively impact job satisfaction, and workers with poor physical health typically exhibit lower rates of productivity and innovation, as well as higher rates of illness-related absenteeism

The cost of this absenteeism borne by employers each year is substantial. According to a 2015 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the annual cost of absenteeism because of obesity is $11.2 billion, followed by physical inactivity at $9.1 billion and diabetes at $2.2 billion. For a large employer with 1,000 employees, these costs translate into up to $285,785 lost per year due to employee physical inactivity alone.

Given that this study predates the pandemic and a new work-from-home environment (and we know that sitting has only grown more prevalent), these numbers are likely much higher. Fortunately, there are some easy remedies that can make a big difference. 

Standing Matters

Simply standing up, changing your posture, and moving for about 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of sitting can help reduce the risk of developing heart disease, as well as reduce the risk of death. 

In a CNN interview, Keith Diaz, lead author of a study on sedentary behavior and mortality, reinforced the power of this simple act, saying that “if you were to replace 30 minutes of sedentary time with 30 minutes of light activity – a casual stroll down the hall – you would lower your risk of early death by 17%.”

Not only does standing up on a regular basis help alleviate the risk of many health concerns, but other lines of research have also shown that these changes in posture can have a positive impact on comfort and work performance, as well as a reduced risk of injuries.

The field of behavioral science teaches us that employers can reinforce and even normalize this physical activity in a nonintrusive and welcoming way. We see three clear opportunities for teams and leaders to encourage standing throughout the day. 

Shape your environment. One of the biggest influencers of our behavior is the environment in which we make decisions. Providing employees with alternative workstations that allow them to switch between sitting and standing while working, or even active workstations, such as treadmill or bicycle workstations, sets the tone of a company whose focus is on employee well-being. Yet, simply providing equipment doesn’t guarantee its use.

Weekly reminders. In a study on workplace movement conducted by the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we found that simple reminders to invest in one’s health by standing up every 30–60 minutes throughout the day were just as effective as messages about the dangers of prolonged sitting. This means we don’t need to scare employees or guilt them into standing. Slight nudges work just as well.    

Shifting company culture. Still, these simple reminders work best when standing up is also convenient. In our studies, we found that standing rates were a lot higher when standing could be incorporated into work tasks compared with when participants had to stop their work tasks in order to stand up.

This has clear implications for managers and team leads to create a work culture where standing and active breaks are acceptable, built-in elements of the workday. For example, entire team meetings could be designated as standing meetings or at least parts, such as during rounds of updates. Going a step further, some meetings, such as brainstorm sessions or one-on-one updates, could be designated desk-free or even walking meetings.

These practices also allow team leads and managers to set an example for the type of work culture that is expected and accepted at the company, helping to overcome any social stigma around standing up at work or during meetings.  

Incorporating regular and socially acceptable periods of activity into the workday can have a dramatic impact on a work environment. It can lead to healthier and happier employees, as well as a more productive overall workplace. 

Nina Bartmann is a Senior Behavior Researcher at Duke University’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, focusing on applied behavioral economics research, with the aim of driving measurable change in the domains of health and finance.