Health: Your killer office space

By Lila MacLellan  | April 16, 2012

(Photo: Sean Justice/Corbis)

If you're reading this article from the comfort of your office chair, do yourself a favour: stand up.

Excessive sitting is now recognized as "lethal," according to Mayo Clinic doctor James Levine, a specialist on the harmful effects of inactivity. In recent years, Levine and others have used clinical studies to prove that even in healthy people, a chair-based lifestyle sets up the physiological conditions for the onset of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity—and ultimately, shorter lifespans.

The problem is that several metabolic processes shut down when a body rests on a chair. A University of Missouri study published this year found that after only three days of relative inactivity, otherwise active individuals experienced significant spikes in blood sugar levels following meals. The subjects' ability to control blood sugar declined with each day of the experiment.

Sitting, of course, is what most people with office jobs do all day. So, as the science on sitting gets more precise—and alarming—experts at more progressive companies are designing ever more potent responses. "Take the stairs" has become "Take the stairs consistently and win a $25 Starbucks card." Vending machines that once sold discounted snacks are now operating with mini-bar prices—not to boost profits but to deter sales.

Both approaches have been deployed at Motley Fool, a financial services firm in Alexandria, Va., credited with being on the avant-garde of workplace wellness. Ben Sterling, "Wellness Fool" in company nomenclature, is spearheading the firm's initiative. One of his signature inventions is the micro-challenge, which asks employees to make one small change—for example, standing up for three seconds every time they send or receive an e-mail—for 30 days. Finish the challenge and collect a $25 gift voucher. "My single purpose in creating the micro-challenge was to build habits," he explains. "It takes an average of 21 days to build a habit. I wanted to go a little longer to drive the exercise home."

The company's more demanding 30-day biannual challenges have awarded winners $500 to spend at Amazon or the Apple store. Employees "win" by accumulating points via various dietary and exercise mechanisms, though not necessarily for superior athleticism. Some programs allot points for things like participation and endurance, or for being a reliable workout partner. The company also runs boot camp classes five times per week, and yoga and meditation sessions. All are scheduled during office hours, which is key. Timing fitness classes during the workday signals to staff that management wants people to take time out from non-stop sitting, and "buy-in" from the top is the single most critical component of any wellness program, according to experts. "It's what has mattered most at our company," confirms Sterling.

Graham Lowe, a B.C.-based workplace consultant and author of the 2011 book Creating Healthy Organizations, argues that management's role in wellness has to go deeper still. His mission is to help companies see health as inseparable from other operational concerns, rather than its own self-contained issue. If employers are looking for ways to reduce costs for things like absenteeism, prescription drug benefits or long-term disabilities, Lowe says they must take a clear-eyed look at the company's role in, well, making people sick in the first place. Workloads, vacation and flextime policies, lines of reporting, office design, access to fitness programs—"everything" affects an organization's overall health, he explains.

Exactly how health and wellness impact a company's profits, particularly in Canada, may soon be better understood: the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business School has recently launched a five-year study of the subject, working in collaboration with the Sun Life Wellness Institute. But according to Sterling, smart employers shouldn't focus on hard numbers. Forget ROI, he says, and just make the changes: "It's a known quantity—being well produces more energy, produces better results."


  • Send the CEO to the gym—leaders must set examples.
  • Hire a wellness coach or make wellness part of someone’s job.
  • Ask employees to take the lead in developing strategies. “Employees don’t need management’s help, only its go-ahead,” says Lowe.
  • Don’t send mixed or conflicting signals about gym time or flex hours.
  • Talk to employees and check workloads to make sure employees have time for walks, breaks, micro-breaks and a proper lunch.
  • Offer employees flexibility with their work hours.
  • Consider cash incentives for health-dedicated spending accounts; focus on participation versus results to be inclusive.