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The Danger at Our Desks

We’ve spent a lot of time on research and tools that help Gensler’s design teams create workplaces to support the way people work today. But what if the way people work today is slowly killing them? This is a developing conundrum facing Gensler and our clients, since the hazardous office activity in question is one we're likely engaged in right now: sitting at a desk, staring at a computer.

Since 1960, U.S. obesity rates have tripled. More than a third of Americans are overweight and another third obese. At the current pace, more than half the adult population will be obese by 2030. A McKinsey report describes the impact as “rival[ing] tobacco as the world’s leading cause of preventable premature death — the obesity pandemic’s health effects may wipe out the gains in life expectancy achieved through decreasing smoking rates.”

There are many compelling reasons for us to do something about this issue, not least that it impacts the very viability of our clients’ business success. Rising health care costs are cited as one of the most significant challenges facing business today. McKinsey estimates the total employee-employer-government cost of obesity at $450 billion a year. The ills of unhealthiness range from premature mortality, increased medical costs, absenteeism, decreased engagement, and perhaps eclipsing them all, the cost of “presenteeism,” or being there but not being all there, estimated by the Center for Work and Health at an annual cost of $180 billion alone.

And not only can we have an impact on lowering costs for our clients, but we can work on the other side of the equation: greater productivity from healthier people. A recent Australian study found that a healthy worker is 300% more productive than a less-healthy one. To put this in perspective, Gensler’s workplace research shows a potential 28% increase in productivity by designing better for specific work modes like focusing or collaborating — there’s even more to be gained from changing what’s unhealthy at work.

Gensler architects

Sources: Public Library of Science (PLoS); The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Gensler architects

Sources: National Center for Health Statistics; U.S.D.A.; Public Library of Science (PLoS); The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A Smoking Gun at the Office

If you ask most people why we’ve got a weight problem, they’d probably say unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. But the indicators that we actually should be healthier make the current situation especially perplexing.

According to USDA data on food production and consumption, the American diet is significantly healthier than five decades ago. We eat more fruit and vegetables, more whole grains, less red meat and drink more skim milk. On the exercise front, more people are engaged in regular leisure time physical activity than ever before. Far from a nation of couch potatoes, we’re actually very active.

If we’re eating better and exercising more, why is our weight situation worsening? It’s led researchers to ask if the problem isn’t with what we do outside work, but with what we’re doing at work.

Here we have the smoking gun. Trends Over 5 Decades in U.S. Occupation-Related Physical Activity and Their Associations With Obesity, an exhaustive study published this year in the Public Library of Science, reveals a direct parallel between weight gain and the rise in jobs involving light to sedentary physical activity.

Occupations requiring moderate activity have fallen from 50 percent of the workforce in 1960 to just 20 percent today. We’ve become a nation of desk workers, and as such are essentially inert for large chunks of the day. Gensler’s 2006 U.S. Workplace Survey revealed as much: 74 percent of the average knowledge worker’s weekly activities involved sitting at a desk, and another 20 percent sitting in meetings. “Desk jobs are increasing obesity,” reports the Harvard School of Public Health.

Gensler architects

Sources: Public Library of Science (PLoS); National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey

If the office is the smoking gun, sitting is the trigger man. Mayo Clinic research shows “higher rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and mortality among people who sit for long stretches.” A leading physiology researcher commented similarly: “Sitting is hazardous. It’s dangerous. We are on the cusp of a major revolution about what we think of as healthy behavior in the workplace.”

One of the most sobering research findings is that sedentary work’s harmful effects can’t be undone by leisure time exercise. Those who engage in vigorous exercise outside work have identical cellular damage to those who didn’t exercise at all. The American Journal of Epidemiology found that “among 123,000 adults followed over 14 years, those who sat more than six hours a day were at least 18% more likely to die during the time period studied than those who sat less than three hours a day.”

And the negative impact of a desk job sets in remarkably quickly. A recent Danish study showed that increasing sitting in an otherwise moderately active group resulted in a 17 percent increase in waist fat — a key indicator of health risk — in just two weeks. All this has led the European Society of Cardiology to urge “considering prolonged sedentary time as a distinct health risk behavior” as bad as smoking or drinking and driving.

We have to do something.

Heal The Unwell Office

After all the bad news, there is hope. As the place where we spend a significant amount of our waking hours, the office may offer the single greatest opportunity to positively impact people’s health.

Our design teams and our clients have to challenge notions of what makes a workplace effective and look at ways to make working less sedentary even as we strive for real estate efficiency. Rather than departmental proximity, maybe some distance is a good thing. Rather than using ergonomic chairs that are comfortable to sit in all day, it's a chair that you want to get out of every half hour, or a standing desk. Outlaw escalators and automatic doors. Why do we sit to take a break from sitting? Walking tracks as building circulation could take the place of lounges. Conference rooms without chairs. Anything that could create movement should be a viable option.

I think that we have an opportunity to solve a big problem, and as a firm that wants to lead our clients to a better future, we have a responsibility to do it. To me, this is the next horizon of how design will truly serve employers and their people.

Erik Lucken
Erik Lucken has played many roles in the design industry— from architecture, interiors and strategy to research, marketing and communications. For the last decade he has studied the intersection of business performance and the built environment, and now leverages his unique range of experience to help clients identify workplace design opportunities through unconventional insights into people, place, policy and process. Contact him at erik_lucken@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (8)

Interesting that this comes out around the same time that there is news about healthcare costs rising precipitiously for U.S. employers...and this Gallup study about business losses due to unhealthy people in the UK: http://bit.ly/qB69ia. We've all said to ourselves at one time or another "I could stand to lose a few pounds" and it seems like employers have a vested interest in helping us get there.
09.29.2011 | Unregistered CommenterKEK
This is a point too often lost in the current healthcare dialogue. The best way to lower healthcare costs is to need less healthcare.
09.29.2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik Lucken
I can't count the number of clients I've worked for where we designed in-house gym facilities (wtih showers and changing rooms accompanying them). I've only worked for one firm that actually had in-house weight facilities and showers and changing rooms -- and that was 25 years ago. Tacit approval of workout time would be a big step in the right direction; subsidized gym memberships -- at a convenient gym -- would be another step; and collaboration with a health care provider that gave policy discounts for regular exercise would be another. I know client firms that do all of those things -- and I bet Genlser is large enough to help make all of those changes internally.
09.29.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Whitacre
Thanks for the feedback, Anne!

What we're seeing is that regardless of the size of a company, we have to bring activity into the workday. Offices can be designed in a way that encourages movement and fosters an environment of healthiness. Even in-house gym facilities can't reverse the harmful effect of people otherwise sitting all day long. This problem will only increase in scope as the average age of our workforce goes up and technology drives even more sedentary workstyles.
09.30.2011 | Unregistered CommenterErik Lucken
How about chairs from Varier? Like the Variable Balans?
10.4.2011 | Unregistered CommenterVictor
Thank you! Your accuracy and honest use of the really important science/research to help focus needed attention on the workplace as a prime venue to be leveraged in the battle against declining health is much appreciated.
10.20.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaren
problem will only increase in scope as the average age of our workforce goes up and technology drives even more sedentary workstyles.
03.25.2013 | Unregistered Commentersac vanessa bruno
When we meet with clients on health and wellbeing in the workplace, we are just touching the surface. Some of them feel it is out of their budget or, not their culture, to provide wellness amenities and behavior. We have to continue educating ourselves and our clients, on the growing issue, to walk the talk. There is a new study, presented by HumanScale, that for every 45 min of sitting, you should do a 15 min standing task to re-generate your metabolism.
03.27.2015 | Unregistered CommenterKaran

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