Absenteeism is a massive impost on businesses. A recent survey has found that workers are, on average, away from work for about 9.5 days per year. With the average work week nudging towards 41 hours per week according to the ABS many of us are spending a lot of time at work in potentially unhealthy positions. Belinda Lyone, the general manager at family owned business COS, is involved in supplying offices with office equipment and is deeply concerned at how our work environments are making us less healthy. That's bad for business but, more importantly, bad for all of us.
Direct Health Solutions carried out a survey last year that found absentee levels are rising. They estimated the cost of absences at over $3600 per worker each year. While the reasons for absences are varied, at least some of those absences can be explained by conditions created by our workplaces.
Poor ergonomics, one-size-fits-all office furniture that's chosen for form over function and equipment that's purchased on price rather than usability all contribute.
"For white collar employees, sitting at your desk for lengths of time, the overkill of meetings, this constant sitting down is not good for your health or productivity," said Lyone. "We like to talk about moving around, having lots of flexibility and creating opportunities to move around the office and still collaborate".
While collaboration systems are extremely useful, they create a work environment where people don't need to get up to meet and talk. Lyone says it's possible to create a workplace that fosters collaboration. And it's possible to do that without spending too much money.
Inevitably, any discussion on office set up draws to the topic of sit/stand desks. A recent article, published at The Conversation, says the benefits of standing desks have been oversold by the media with "evidence" of the benefits either based on limited studies or on research that was sponsored, without disclosure, by companies with an interest in seeing standing desks become popular.
"People are still feeling their way with standing desks," said Lyone.
Rather than refit an entire office with sit/stand workstations, Lyone said COS has taken a different approach, creating different work zones people can move between rather than expecting them to make a choice they are stuck with for ever.
"They can go to a different area, for an hour or two, to get the blood flowing and to give the body a break".
This less extreme approach is important, said Lyone. She likened it to training for a marathon - you don't go out and run 42km straight away. You work up to it, building strength and endurance. Similarly, expecting people to work at standing desks for long periods of time is not reasonable or healthy.
There are lots of things you can do in the office to encourage movement and create a healthier office envionrment. For example, you can think about printer placement, where you put kitchen facilities, introduce healthy snacks and remove sugary snacks from vending machines.
Lyone said one of the keys is to create workplaces that encourage movement and change. That can be having a combination of different desks that people can freely move between.
"Gone are the days of cookie-cutter office spaces where everyone is sitting at the same sized desk with the same chair. You need to have a little more personalisation," she said.
The bane of the modern workplace, meetings, came under some special attention by Lyone.
"Meetings are a really big thing to think about. How they have their meetings? Are there space to have stand-up huddles versus places for more collaborative work with comfortable places to sit?"
Lyone pointed to Steve Jobs' practice of having walking meetings, where people take while going for a walk around the block.
"You need to create some options for people to mix it up a bit. Anything that you that is repetitive is not helpful. Even if you have a desk that's well setup with a footrest, copy-holder and wireless mouse - if you sit in that position for 8, 10, 12 hours, your body is not going to react well to that. Being able to move around and have different set ups is quite clever".
When it comes to fitting out a new workspace, Lyone says you need to think about they style of work you're doing and the style of collaboration you're trying to create. You need to make spaces that let that happen. That means designing different meeting spaces, for example, that support short meetings and other spaces for longer meetings. The spaces need to be designed around activities and not simply how many people you're trying to fit into a space.