How to stay healthy at work

For anyone who remembers delivering newspapers as a teenager, the idea of an office job probably seemed great at the time – a comfortable chair, shelter from the freezing rain and a Sunday morning lie-in.

But the reality is that a few hours of cycling was probably a lot better for your body and boosting your productivity than eight hours of e-mails and phone calls. And while many of us probably put in an hour or so at the gym a few times a week, it still might not be enough to offset any damage done whilst working in a busy office environment.

Follow our easy tips for a hard day of work that’s only back-breaking in the figurative sense – not the literal one.

Keep yourself on your toes

“Writing and travel broaden your [behind] if not your mind, and I like to write standing up,” wrote Hemingway in 1950. And he may have had a point. Between sleep, cars, work-desks and sofas, the average office worker is probably spending more than 20 hours a day off their feet – and it’s not healthy. Dr. John Buckley, exercise physiologist at Chichester University in the UK, says that standing up for an extra three hours per day would burn off 8lb (3.6kg) of fat each year – something many of us certainly wouldn’t complain about.

In fact, studies suggest that prolonged sitting – eight to twelve hours per day – increases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 90%, as well as increasing the chances of cardiovascular problems and cancer. Even worse: the World Health Organisation identifies physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths across the world, and giving rise to the phrase “sitting is the new smoking”.

The solution? Get up and stay up. Many modern offices are taking chairs out of meeting rooms, offering raised desks and even taking one-on-one meetings outside for a walk. The first day or two might be a challenge, but you’ll soon adapt – the human body is built to endure far worse than a few extra hours of walking around each day!

Don’t stick your neck out

If being the only one standing up in an open-plan office isn’t worth the embarrassment, or your boss won’t shell out for a raised work station, you need to know how to look after your body at a desk. Maintaining proper sight-lines is essential for a healthy neck, so adjust your chair and your monitor until they’re at their most comfortable. You don’t want to be craning at a screen that’s too high, and you don’t want your chin touching your chest, either. Ideally, your screen should be around 6 inches below your horizontal eye-line which should allow your neck relax in a natural position.

If you spend a lot of time on the phone, try to use the speaker, or switch to a headset. Cradling a handset between your ear and your shoulder for long periods of time can cause Tension Neck Syndrome (TNS) which could lead to pains and muscle tightness in the neck and shoulder.

And don’t forget your posture. Find a chair that lets your back stay straight and keep your feet on the ground. If you’re really serious, try swapping the chair for an exercise ball. This will force you to adopt a straight posture and the tiny movements required to keep your balance will burn calories and strengthen your back muscles throughout the day. Just try not to bounce too much – it’s addictive and your colleagues will start to become concerned!

Keep an eye on your screen

Anyone who spends several hours solidly staring at an illuminated computer screen is bound to feel some strain. If your vision gets blurry, your eyes go red, dry or tired, or you feel a burning sensation, you’re probably a sufferer of Computer Vision Syndrome. There’s no evidence that prolonged use of a computer leads to any permanent damage, but it’s certainly uncomfortable, and can lead to headaches as well as making you feel irritable and unfocused.

First, make sure you’re not too close. Your screen should sit about an arm’s length away from your face, and it should always be directly in front of you – never off to one side. Zoom in on documents and web pages until the text is at a comfortable size, and adjust the screen contrast and brightness until things are easy to read.

After you’ve fiddled with your screen, make sure the lighting in the room is right, too. Try the Visor Test: while looking at your screen, cup your hands around your eyes – somewhat like a curved baseball cap – and see whether your eyes feel less strain. If they do, you’ll need to adjust your surrounding lighting until there’s very little difference when you cup your hands.

Don’t forget to take a break

Working from a computer screen isn’t the same as reading a book or a magazine. Your eyes are constantly flicking around to different areas, as well as adjusting from the illuminated screen to the darker notes on your desk. Every fifteen minutes or so, take 60 seconds to fetch a glass of water, look out of the window, or have a chat with a neighbour. Your poor eye muscles will get a chance to relax, and you can return to your work refreshed and focused.

Unfortunately, we can’t guarantee that your time spent in an office will be an entirely pain-free experience – either physically or psychologically. But by being aware of the things that can cause you long-term harm, you can at least do what you can to minimise the dangers and perils of life behind the desk.