Killer workplace: How to avoid becoming 'Emma'

Overweight with a permanently hunched back, red eyes, varicose veins and sickly, pallid skin, the model created by scientists to reflect what the office worker of the future could look like was meant to shock the desk-bound into action.

Based on a study of over 3,000 workers, scientists created ‘Emma’, a life-size model, to graphically illustrate the effects of what years of poor posture at work can do to your body. And it didn’t look good.

According to William Higham, who led the team of researchers behind Emma, workers and employers need to wake up to the health challenges the work environment can create. Unveiling his creation he said: “Unless we make radical changes to our working lives, such as moving more, addressing our posture at our desks, taking regular walking breaks or consider improving our work station set-up, our offices are going to make us very sick.”

While Emma may look like she’d be more at home in Madame Tussauds than sitting next to you, chartered physiotherapist Jenny Branigan believes that using a visual representation like this hits home a lot more than just telling people they need to change their behaviour.

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Branigan, who runs Total Physio in Dublin’s Sandyford, says actually seeing the effects of poor posture manifested in Emma’s permanently hunched back, her varicose veins from poor circulation and her distended belly from hours of sitting is shocking but necessary.

She says there’s plenty of data to show that hours of sitting is associated with an increased risk of chronic disease and while there are also increased health benefits of exercising, it may not be enough to counteract the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

“Sitting for seven hours a day isn’t going to be undone by a quick walk around the block at lunchtime. In the evening we’re relaxing by watching TV and looking at social media – the periods of inactivity are getting longer,” says Branigan.

But by introducing some simple changes, she believes we can make sure that we’re not on the same slippery slope to ill-health as Emma.

Things like keeping ourselves moving in work, taking the stairs instead of the lift, walking to the toilet one or two floors away and drinking lots of water will all help.

“Don’t email your colleagues – go and talk to them. If you have the flexibility, walk and talk where you can. Look at mobile meetings where you walk outside and grab a coffee. If you’re commuting, get off one or two stops before your actual stop and walk the rest of the way to work. If you’re driving, aim to arrive 10 to 15 minutes earlier so you can break the cycle of sitting and walk for 10 minutes before work,” says Branigan.

According to the Irish College of Ophthalmologists, Emma’s puffed and red eyes can also be avoided by making some changes. Dr Gary Treacy, college spokesman, says overdoing anything will make you tired and the same is true for your eyes. By taking regular screen breaks, making more effort to blink and introducing preservative-free eye drops, office workers can make sure they’re more comfortable.

“If you’re getting a headache from close work on a computer screen, it’s a good idea to get yourself checked out for glasses. If you get a headache when you’re working and you don’t have it when you’re relaxing, you probably need to have your eyes checked,” says Dr Treacy.

And just because you work from home doesn’t mean you’re better off. The trend for millennials to treat their bed as a desk is not a long-term recipe for good health.

As well as creating poor sleep hygiene, chartered physiotherapist Niall Halliday says if you’re lying down, you’re using your muscles even less than when you’re sitting up. You will lose muscle mass by lying down. “Lying down is fine when you’re sleeping or sick but it’s for that time only,” says Halliday.

The stand-up desk and the exercise ball as an office chair have been gaining popularity. Facebook’s Dublin offices were early adopters of such desks.

Health and safety expert Jason Kearns says these trends have their pros and cons. Ultimately he believes that giving employees a choice over whether they want to stand or sit is a good starting point. But most importantly he believes employers should do more to ensure employees are not so overloaded that they feel the need to sit for hours without taking a break.

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