80% Of Office Workers Spend Nearly All Day At Their Desks, And It Can't Be Good For Us

Even if all you're doing at your desk is reading private email and playing games on your phone because there's nothing to do, at least you're there, a reassuring blob in the office landscape.
Publish date:
September 25, 2014
health, exercise, women in the workplace, working, the workplace, Workplace

According to "The Daily Mail," 87% of office workers in Britain spend all their time at their desks, with the exception of runs to the bathroom -- or loo, I suppose. I'm a bit skeptical of this data because I can't find the "study" they're referencing (would it kill the media to link to scientific research if they're going to talk about it?), but the point stands: People who work in offices spend a lot of time on their butts, and that includes those of us in home offices as well.

Speaking for myself, I got up at eight, started work at nine, and have been pinned to my desk all day with the exception of getting up to go to the bathroom -- and it's now close to seven. (If the timestamp on this post is confusing you, well, I'm sure it will shock no one to learn that we write posts in advance sometimes.) By now, I'm getting to the point where sitting feels extremely uncomfortable, I'm shifting my weight in my chair, my eyes feel a little glazed, and I just want to get up and flail around. But I can't, because I have too much work to do.

Two years ago, researchers found that 70% of employees surveyed didn't meet recommended physical activity guidelines. Looking at people 50 and under, nearly 50% fell into the category of people who weren't moving around enough -- at least, in terms of recommendations developed by government health agencies. Meanwhile, in Cardiff, researchers presented data on workplace culture showing that in some settings, workers are encouraged to be at their desks at least 75% of the time.

However the actual statistics work out, this much we know: People in offices spend a lot of time at their desks, and many office workers are probably not getting that much physical exercise. For many people, exercise has health benefits including improving strength and flexibility as well as stamina, contributing to psychological health, and providing a mechanism for controlling work-life balance a bit more. While the benefits can vary from person to person (and some people have exercise intolerance, which makes it a bad idea to push exercise on everyone as the cure to every single problem on Earth), overall, broadly speaking, moving around can be a good thing for bodies, whatever form that moving takes.

Maybe it's marathon running. Mountain climbing. Kayaking. Skiing. Gentle yoga. Dance. Playing within our bodies and testing their limits can be pretty great -- and often, we don't realize how down we are as a result of lack of exercise until we start exercising again. They call it "runner's high" for a reason.

The fact that many people are staying at their desks all day is a reflection of some troubling trends in both workplace and private culture. In the workplace, people are being encouraged to show proof of efficiency and busyness -- and you do that by staying at your desk, proving that you are working and staying focused and attentive. Even if you're actually struggling to focus because you're tired, your eyes are strained, and your muscles are sore, you still need to perform, and in some cases may be fired for being away from your desk too much.

We live in a capitalist culture where work is the greatest arbiter of your value to society, so you need to work harder, longer, and faster to impress your colleagues and supervisors. That creates a snowball effect where you feel trapped at your desk all day so you don't miss something important or unwittingly make yourself look like a slacker. Even if all you're doing at your desk is reading private email and playing games on your phone because there's nothing to do, at least you're there, a reassuring blob in the office landscape.

But there's another complication here too. Aside from the fact that it's not very healthy to force people to sit for long periods of time for day after day, workdays are long -- especially when combined with commutes. Work might eat up 10 hours or more of your day between being in the workplace and getting there, and that leaves limited time for play after hours; but you have to do errands first.

Somehow you're supposed to fit in the myriad of tasks that need to be performed to keep your life running (hitting the grocery store, doing the laundry, paying the bills) along with critical needs like sleep, and suddenly, getting out and about and moving around starts to slip further and further down your priority list. We live in a culture so crunched for time that people don't have enough time to make room for moving around -- or they're too exhausted for it when they finally get around to it.

This ties in to the cult of busyness and the idea that we should all be demonstrably busy at all times, but it's also deeply tragic. How many people go on long walks after dinner these days to digest both their food and their days? How many of us go out dancing with friends and celebrate our bodies whether we're learning contra dance, shimmying on the floor of the club, or going to ballet class? How many of us get to enjoy being in our bodies instead of viewing them as tools and occasional obstacles?

I feel like those numbers are shrinking -- I know that from my seat hunched over at my desk, watching the sky get darker, I won't have time to go for a walk tonight. After I finish writing this, I'll collapse in the living room with a book and then go to bed, like I do every night.