Many jobs involve long periods of static sitting, which, combined with a sedentary lifestyle, is linked to ill health.
This report from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) examines the issues surrounding prolonged sitting at work, including the jobs and workers most affected, and identifies the health risks posed, including musculoskeletal disorders. It discusses relevant EU legislation and the value of risk assessments for protecting the health of those engaged in work involving prolonged sitting.
Prolonged sitting can be defined as being sedentary for 2 hours or longer at a time. It has three main characteristics:
low energy expenditure
a seated body posture
static loading (physical exertion to maintain the same position).
According to Eurobarometer data from 2013, in the EU 18% of adults sit for more than 7.5 hours in total during the day, with higher levels typically seen in Scandinavian countries and lower levels in countries such as Italy, Portugal and Spain. A French survey found that adults, on average, sat for around 7.5 hours a day, of which 4 hours 10 minutes involved sitting at work.
Workers at risk
Office workers are most at risk of prolonged sitting says the report. However, other jobs and work areas involving prolonged sitting; these include drivers, pilots, crane operators, sewing machine operators, assembly line workers, and those working at service desks and in laboratories, call centres and control rooms. Those working from home may be tempted to work for longer without a break, in what may be poorer ergonomic conditions than those that they have in the office.
Women report sitting at work almost all the time more than men. They are over-represented in a number of predominantly seated jobs, such as office work and micro assembly. The report suggests that this may mean they have a lack of control over how they work, including when they can take breaks to get up and move around. Pregnant women need to avoid prolonged sitting by taking frequent breaks to stand and move around, especially as pregnancy advances.
Prolonged sitting is also a particular issue for workers who have developed chronic conditions such as back pain and rheumatic diseases, as long periods of sitting may provoke the pain associated with such conditions. As the workforce ages, there will be more workers with such conditions. In addition, because of the increased sedentary nature of work and a rise in the official retirement age, workers today may have an increased exposure to sedentary work across their life course compared with previous generations of workers. Avoiding prolonged sitting is an issue for sustainable working.
Based on a short review of literature, the report presents the cause and health effects of prolonged static sitting in a graphic model. Health effects that have been linked to prolonged sitting include:
low back pain
neck and shoulder complaints
type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease
certain types of cancers, in particular breast cancer and colon cancer
mental health issues
Guidelines for sitting at work
Based on the guidelines reviewed in this report, the following is recommended while at work:
Spend 50 % or less of your working day sitting.
Avoid sitting for any length of time – aim to get up at least every 20-30 minutes.
Always get up for at least 10 minutes after 2 hours of sitting – sit less whenever possible.
Do not exceed 5 hours of sitting at work each day.
Work in an active manner and change position between sitting, standing and walking.
The report also provides guidelines and policy pointers for promoting dynamic, active working with less sitting, and examples of effective workplace interventions and good practice. It highlights the importance of staying active not only for workers but also for schoolchildren, to ensure that work is sustainable for today’s workforce and future generations.
The summary report is available here.
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work June 2021