Promoting active workplaces

Promoting active workplaces

What this section covers

NIHR funded research has looked at the impact of workplace interventions to encourage office workers to sit less, move more and alter commuting habits. Local authorities, as large organisations, are expected to be exemplars of good practice in the prevention and management of obesity, because of its impact on the health of the workforce, and associated costs to industry (NICE). This includes local authorities ensuring that their on-site catering promotes healthy food and drink choices. Local authorities also need policies, facilities and information to promote physical activity (e.g., providing showers, secure cycle parking and improved décor to encourage the use of stairs).

What’s the context?

  • Employees living with obesity or overweight take more sickness absence days due to related health conditions (Institute for Employment Studies).
  • Shift-work can influence employee obesity through eating behaviours, changes in metabolism and sleep patterns, and other factors. Long working hours may also increase employees’ risk of becoming overweight or obese. Evidence is inconclusive on whether sedentary work is linked to obesity (Institute for Employment Studies). Physical activity guidelines advise adults to minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (Department of Health and Social Care).
  • A move to hybrid working, accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, may create new challenges and opportunities to promote healthy workplaces.

What does NIHR research tell us?

There is limited evidence to support sit-stand desks or other efforts to help office workers sit less at work

In one small study, office workers received height-adjustable desks, sitting and standing targets, education, feedback,and support. This intervention reduced sitting time at 12 months, and led to positive changes in work-related and psychological health.(1) However, a review of 34 studies found limited evidence on sit-stand desks. It concluded that they may reduce sitting at work in their first year of use, but the effects are likely to decrease over time.(2) Other ‘sit less at work’ approaches, such as step competitions and regular breaks from sitting, have not been shown consistently to reduce sitting time, including in local authority workers.(1,2,3) Financial incentives (retail vouchers) to encourage regular physical activity in public sector office workers has not been value for money.(5)

Barriers to reducing sitting at work include: workload pressures, the social norms of sitting, competing priorities, a lack of management buy-in, and perceptions of where responsibility rests for behaviour change.(2,3) Educating office workers on the health consequences of too much sitting, positive attitudes to height-adjustable desks, regular feedback on sitting time, and regular support, have been shown to help change behaviours.(6)

Relaxing parking policies encourages car use

Relaxing parking policies in the workplace increases car trips and reduces active commutes (walking, cycling) or use of public transport.(7) A co-worker-led approach to encourage employees to walk to work was not effective at increasing moderate to vigorous activity.(8)

Useful resources

  • NICE provides guidance on actions employers, including local authority employers, can take.
  • Business in the Community has a toolkit to help employers achieve a healthier working environment.
  • World Obesity Day has produced guidance for employers on creating healthy workplaces.

NIHR research in progress

  • An intervention to reduce daily sitting time in office workers both inside and outside of the workplace is being evaluated. This research aims to address previously identified barriers.(9)
  • How effective are approaches to increase physical activity, improve diet and reduce sitting (during breaks and non-work time) in long distance lorry drivers?(10)

NIHR studies included in this section

  1. Edwardson CL, Yates T, Biddle SJH, Davies MJ, Dunstan DW, Esliger DW, et al. Effectiveness of the Stand More AT (SMArT) Work intervention: cluster randomised controlled trial. The BMJ. 2018 Oct 10;363:k3870.
  2. Shrestha N, Kukkonen‐Harjula KT, Verbeek JH, Ijaz S, Hermans V, Pedisic Z. Workplace interventions for reducing sitting at work. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018 Jun 20;6(6)CD010912.
  3. Mackenzie K, Such E, Norman P, Goyder E. Understanding the Implementation of “Sit Less at Work” Interventions in Three Organisations: A Mixed Methods Process Evaluation. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jul 9;18(14):7361.
  4. Mackenzie K, Such E, Norman P, Goyder E. Development, implementation, and evaluation of Sit Less at Work interventions in diverse organisations: a mixed-methods study. The Lancet. 2021 Nov 1;398:S63.
  5. Hunter RF, Gough A, Murray JM, Tang J, Brennan SF, Chrzanowski-Smith OJ, et al. A loyalty scheme to encourage physical activity in office workers: a cluster RCT. Public Health Res. 2019 Sep 3;7(15):1–114.
  6. Biddle SJH, O’Connell SE, Davies MJ, Dunstan D, Edwardson CL, Esliger DW, et al. Reducing sitting at work: process evaluation of the SMArT Work (Stand More At Work) intervention. Trials. 2020 May 13;21(1):403.
  7. Knott CS, Sharp SJ, Mytton OT, Ogilvie D, Panter J. Changes in workplace car parking and commute mode: a natural experimental study. J Epidemiol Community Health. 2019 Jan 1;73(1):42–9.
  8. Audrey S, Fisher H, Cooper A, Gaunt D, Metcalfe C, Garfield K, et al. A workplace-based intervention to increase levels of daily physical activity: the Travel to Work cluster RCT. Public Health Res. 2019 Jun 5;7(11):1–128.
  9. Edwardson CL, Biddle SJH, Clarke-Cornwell A, Clemes S, Davies MJ, Dunstan DW, et al. A three arm cluster randomised controlled trial to test the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of the SMART Work & Life intervention for reducing daily sitting time in office workers: study protocol. BMC Public Health. 2018 Dec;18(1):1120.
  10. Clemes S. A cluster randomised controlled trial to investigate the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a Structured Health Intervention For Truckers (The SHIFT Study). NIHR Funding and Awards Search Website. [cited 2022 Feb 24].