Emma’s eyes are bloodshot and red from long hours staring at a computer screen; stress-induced eczema peeks from the sleeves of her dress; and, cut off from adequate blood flow after excessive sitting, her ankles are swollen and laced with varicose veins. Hunchbacked and pallid-skinned, Emma depicts the average office worker in 2040—a nightmarish personification of health issues associated with long hours spent staring at a screen and scant movement. 

Designed by office furniture company Fellowes in 2019, the life-sized doll put fear into the hearts of office workers. But that was before the pandemic, when millions of knowledge workers suddenly shifted to working from home.

Being released from the office could have made things better. Freed from the commute, workers could have spent less time at their desks and more time being active. But three years of makeshift desk setups and a lot of sitting later, knowledge workers may be on an even more rapid path to emulating Emma’s litany of ailments. 

“I don’t support the office environment for myriad reasons, from air quality to noise levels,” says William Higham, a behavioral futurist who collaborated with Fellowes on the project. “But working from home can go either way—if Emma worked from home, she’d have the potential to be much less, or much more healthy.”

Creations like Emma succeed in sending a shiver down our (crooked) spines, but no one needs a waxwork to see that sedentariness has crept up in recent years. It affects both in-office and remote workers, but it’s become an acute dilemma for those who spend the bulk of their time at home. Under the strain of longer hours, meeting bloat, layoffs, and punitive performance metrics, workers aren’t leaving their homes during the day. The majority of UK workers (63 percent) go outside for 10 minutes or less during the working day, according to The Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (Cimpspa). And in the US, one in three remote workers sits in their chairs the entire day, with 24 percent never stepping outside of their home. Screen use, partly driven by the pandemic, has soared and stayed high, with a quarter of Britons staring at theirs for 14 hours or more a day.

The gap between promise and reality began to emerge midway through the pandemic. The Royal Society for Public Health found that although more Britons think working home is better for their health (45 percent), with just 29 percent of the opinion that it’s worse, when those who switched to working from home due to Covid-19 were asked about the well-being impacts, 46 percent said it led them to get less exercise and 39 percent said it had caused them to develop musculoskeletal problems. 

“What changed most during the pandemic is not where we work, but the culture of it—the practice of taking work breaks has eroded,” says Dave Cook, an anthropologist at University College London who coauthored a research paper on the end of the active work break, published in 2022. The most overarching insight was how intensely guilty workers felt about taking breaks during the working day. “Sometimes people lost focus or procrastinate during the working day, so they’d stay at their desk longer out of guilt or a practical need to catch up,” says Cook. “It’s completely about the power dynamics between the individual worker and employer—and through follow-up conversations [since the paper], I haven’t seen any evidence that the issue has abated.”

Cimpspa’s research, from late 2022, revealed that 86 percent of workers say they have too much work to move during the day, and 54 percent admit to spending eight hours or more sitting at their desks. More than 1 in 3 workers (34 percent) are afraid to leave their desks in case people think they’re not working. In the tech industry, this is only compounded by the tsunami of layoffs. “During periods of uncertainty, the autonomy and agency around some people’s work rights is eroded, and at the moment, people are worried about their jobs and are more likely to take fewer breaks because they want to seem like they’re being effective,” says Cook. 

Days have been getting longer too. Around the world, the working day has expanded by 46 minutes, with a 28 percent increase in after-hours work and a 14 percent increase in weekend work, according to Microsoft’s March 2022 Work Trend Index, a survey of 31,000 employees and self-employed people across 31 countries. Although “flexible” work offers a certain kind of flexibility, it also blurs boundaries. Microsoft research from 2021 has shown the emergence of a “third productivity peak,” where work hours are extending beyond the regular pre-pandemic 9-5, and activity regarding emails is most frequent after-hours.

Chained to terribly engineered desks or bed desks, and anxious about how their breaks will be perceived by the omniscient higher powers, people are suffering. Over 1 in 4 Britons work from home from either a sofa or a bedroom, and 48 percent of those who do said they had developed musculoskeletal problems. Tech neck (a moniker given to the inflammation, pain, and knots caused by constant dropping of the head to stare at small screens) is a growing epidemic.

“Prolonged periods of sitting also puts a lot of pressure on the discs of our spines, and that extra pressure can lead to back pain, with long periods of immobility causing stiff, hard-to-move joints,” explains Kavita Trivedi, a spine rehab expert at the University of Texas’ O’Donnell Brain Institute. There are plenty of knock-on effects that will be flying under the radar too. Many studies have evidenced the relationship between sedentary behavior and increased blood pressurereduced insulin sensitivity, and increased rates of obesity

In an attempt to lure staff back to the office, some companies are investing in ways to move while at work. Real estate developer Edge, known for its nudging features like centralized staircases and indoor climbing walls, has installed the world’s largest “walking meeting room”—a treadmill big enough for 15 people to meet, walk and talk on—in one of its office buildings opening in Amsterdam’s Zuidas CBD later this year. BentallGreenOak’s development 105 Victoria Street in London will have a 200-meter outdoor walk-and-talk track to encourage active meetings, as well as an indoor arena for sports and games. 

A small study conducted in the Netherlands found that 70 percent of employees in sedentary jobs wanted more physical activity in their routine, so these sophisticated onsite facilities do count as progress. But hours of vigorous hiking or bouldering isn’t enough to undo the effects of sedentary working.

“No amount of exercise can entirely cancel the effect of sitting and looking at a screen for eight hours a day,” says Trivedi. Independent of physical activity, sedentary behavior is associated with increased cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. As Trivedi explains: “The only way to minimize the physical effects of prolonged sitting is if we take breaks from that position regularly.” 

Experts say that companies must ensure staff aren’t endangered by their WFH setups. “If companies don’t need their physical spaces, there’s a trade-off and they can put some of the money they’d have spent on rent into making the environment safer for workers,” says Higham. Many remote tech companies give generous stipends in this area. Reddit reimburses employees for some home workspace purchases, such as a desk and monitor, while staff at Malta-headquartered Hotjar get a home office budget of €2,500 ($2,700), which they can choose how to spend, plus €500 a year. For any spaces fully dedicated to working, Flatfile sets aside a $10,000 budget per employee to cover “an interior designer to collaborate with to make over your workspace, combining our company culture with your unique personality and tastes,” it writes in its jobs ads. 

Insurtech companies are latching onto the desire to incentivize movement and are tying it to company premiums and employee benefits. For example, UK-based life insurance tech company YuLife offers a gamified app through which employees can unlock new movement challenges each day and earn “YuCoin” to be spent in the “Yuniverse.” 

However, Anna Rudnicka, ​​a research fellow of human-computer interaction at UCL and coauthor of the break-taking paper with Cook, is wary of tools like this. “It goes back to: Is this being used to improve the population’s health or for companies to have another way of controlling workers? It’s especially questionable in North America, where employment is tied so closely to accessibility of health care—it could get out of hand quickly if your employer has access to data about whether you moved enough.” 

There’s a fine line between paternalism and friendly encouragement here, but Rudnicka believes going back to the basics is a good start. “Constant availability has become a requirement, and I’d advocate for more acceptance around different types of communication so people can take walks during calls, rather than always opting for video,” she says.

After all, few initiatives will have an impact unless employers make a conscious effort to reduce stress and encourage pauses in the working day. “Be clear about the fact that people don’t need to be available all the time,” says Rudnicka. “Ultimately, if workers feel they’re constantly controlled, they won’t feel able to take a break—active or sedentary.”

Leave a Reply