Workstation assessments: taking breaks at work

Health and safety | September 2017

woman taking a tea break at workAt your desk all day? Break it up

Ergonomics consultant and experienced physiotherapist, Emma Crumpton, provides the bigger picture on the need for taking breaks at work.

We know that sitting is a known risk factor for ill health, and that the strategies employed to avoid prolonged sitting should be multifactorial. These should include physical, organisational, psychosocial and individual factors.

The average officer worker is likely to spend 65,000 hours in a task chair, from leaving full-time education until they retire. In the face of this statistic, one seemingly easy healthier working practice is to take regular breaks away from the desk. Frequent micro-breaks or postural adjustments may help to avoid the risks associated with sitting.

Health risks and costs to employers

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) states that one in four people in the UK regularly work all day without taking a break, and are putting their health at risk.

stressed woman at deskThe CSP’s UK wide survey also showed that over a third of staff regularly work through their lunch break, and nearly a quarter take no lunch break at all. Half of those not taking breaks at work do so because they have too much work to complete, while almost a third say it is because there are too few staff to cover the workload.

Physiotherapists are concerned that poor work habits, such as not taking breaks at work, working in the same position for extended periods, going to work when ill or stressed, and not taking enough exercise, pose serious health risks. And for employers, the effect of this could be to cause potentially significant costs.

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What can we do to encourage people into taking breaks at work, or changing activities?

time for a break illustrationHealth and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, amended 2002, are clear about the requirement for regular breaks.

They do not specify frequency or duration as this will depend upon the nature of the job, but do say that the timing of breaks is more important than the length, and that shorter more frequent breaks are preferable. Also, that users should have discretion to take breaks as needed, so that they can control the pace of work. They encourage breaks away from the desk and working environment.

Workplace design, equipment provision and management practices that enable staff to work in a variety of settings may encourage more activity and less sedentary positioning.

It only takes a minute

man stretches at office deskA very simple part of a solution is to sit less and move more. The Department of Health’s 2011 Start Active, Stay Active report recommends breaking up long periods of sitting with “shorter bouts of activity for just one or two minutes”. Whilst it is acknowledged that the evidence base does not provide enough information to set a time limit on sitting, a leading panel of experts that reviewed all the available evidence suggest “taking an active break from sitting every 30 minutes”.

orange fitness ballAt System-Concepts we suggest introducing micro breaks as well as strategies for being more active at work. Employees should adjust their posture and perform desk based exercises for approximately two minutes over every 30 – 45 minute period. This should not interrupt workflow or concentration, keeps blood flowing to break the cycle of static muscle loading, and encourages good posture.

Simple exercises everyone can do at their desks:

  1. Lift your shoulders towards your ears then roll them forwards, down and backwards. Then reverse the movement to roll shoulders backwards, up and forwards.
  2. Place your palms together in front of the chest with elbows held away from your body and push both hands together powerfully until you feel the arm muscles contract. Hold the prayer hands pushed together for 20 seconds. Release and repeat.
  3. Take a deep breath and tighten the abdominal muscles, bringing them in towards the spine as you exhale. Stay squeezed for 5-10 seconds and release. Repeat
  4. Squeeze your buttocks together, hold for 5-10 seconds, and release. Repeat
  5. Tap your toes on the floor under your desk. Or use your foot rest to tap your feet on and off, alternating feet, in soccer-drill fashion. Progress so that you lift your knees at the same time.

Download instructions for additional desk exercises:

Desk Exercises Cheat Sheet

How organisations can encourage activity

coworkers meeting at standing deskTaking breaks at work, simple desk exercises and changing activity all help counter the risks of sitting too much. Organisations can help by creating cultures that encourage these behaviours, and by providing equipment such as standing meeting rooms, sit stand desks, and alternative seating and breakout areas.

Here’s a short ideas list to help kick start the planning process for your organisation:

  1. Encourage standing meetings through the provision of high meeting tables, or encourage walking and talking.
  2. Provide standing or treadmill desks.
  3. Encourage employees to use the stairs rather than taking the lift. Discourage the use of lifts other than by employees with access issues.
  4. Discourage employees from eating lunch at their desks.
  5. Position printers, coffee facilities and other frequently used equipment where they have to be walked to.

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