This article focuses on how we can make climate goals relevant to a broad range of our business community through considering the co-benefit opportunities associated with an active workforce.

Climate change is seen by many to be a nebulous concept. It’s just too big and the timescales are too long for people to really get their heads around it. Whilst the climate is changing rapidly, it is changing rapidly in geological timescales, which means that a lot of the climate change debate refers to things happening by 2050, or 2100. That tends to switch people off if they know that they won’t be alive to see it, and frankly most of us have more immediate things to worry about. Additionally, people (and their attitudes) are the driving force behind businesses, which are more likely to work in 3-5 year timeframes than 30-50.

How do we re-frame the debate to engage all generations, and therefore business, to the maximum extent possible? Climate change is happening right now – so talking about what will happen in 30-50 years ignores the issues that are right under our noses. This is the second in a series (the first was on Health and Diet) exploring key climate-related behaviours that grab people’s attention in the short term – and specifically how businesses can make climate goals relevant and achievable by focusing on delivering a range of benefits including to the environment.

One way to address this can be to support office-based staff in being physically active. For example, by encouraging stair usage you can reduce power consumption from people taking the lift. Likewise if you can encourage a more active form of meeting approach you will reduce screen time and lighting demand as your meeting rooms become less congested. Read on for some practical ideas on how to achieve this.

If you listen to, or read, any form of news media you will, at some stage, have seen or heard an article talking about how sedentary our lives have become. Many of us have sedentary jobs and physical activity becomes something we have to tag on to the beginning, middle or end of an already long and exhausting day.

The stats

Physical inactivity now rivals smoking as one of the nation’s biggest health problems and is responsible for 17% of early deaths in the UK (Source: NHS Forest).

An inactive person spends 37% more days in hospital and visits the doctor 5% more often. The cost to the economy of physical inactivity in England alone is estimated to be £8.2bn per year, and reducing the sedentary population by one percent could reduce morbidity and mortality rates by £1.44bn per year (Source: NHS Forest).

Sport-based exercise is only a small part of the answer

If someone tells me to go for a run to get healthy it makes my teeth grind. I spent my early years in London and my lungs suffered for it. Despite having good lung capacity thanks to swimming and singing, my ability to run is limited to short sprints before I’m gasping like a fish out of water and reaching for my inhaler. Even were I to find the time, I have neither the drive nor the inclination to change that because, frankly, I find running incredibly boring. There are some far more interesting sports out there, but they tend to be expensive and time consuming to get good at (climbing, horse riding and kayaking spring to mind as examples of this).

Telling a sedentary person to get up and run or go to a fitness class is insulting – and potentially dangerous – and doesn’t take in to account the crippling self-consciousness that sedentary people are often faced with when exercising in public. Those of us with body-image issues can think of nothing worse than being asked – loudly – by the super fit instructor whether you’re alright and need to sit down (True. Humiliating. Story).

People who are obsessive about exercise will make time for it – and running and cycling burn a lot of calories so an hour or so of exercise every day or every other day will help them stay in shape and keep fit. However, an hour of walking will not have the same impact and people rarely find the time to walk for a full hour unless they are going somewhere.

For those of us not obsessed with exercise, the goal needs to change. Rather than tagging exercise on to the beginning, middle or end of a typical day, instead the goal should be to integrate it fully into the daily routine so that it becomes second nature.

Businesses, particularly those with a largely desk-based workforce, are under pressure to provide workplace wellness programmes. Most of the ones I have come across involve getting some sort of discount with a local gym. Not only does this not help a lot of staff (it’s either the wrong gym, or they don’t want to go to a gym) but it can be expensive for the business to subsidise gym memberships.

So how can exercise become part of the daily routine for office-based workers, and what are the benefits of doing that?

Exercising in green space benefits health

Green space is all the rage at the moment and for good reason, particularly in regard to the benefits to both physical and mental health. Gentle exercise in green space has a number of benefits to health including:

  • Improved mood, reduced blood pressure and muscle tension;
  • Increased tree cover improves air quality and reduces risks of respiratory illness; and
  • Studies have shown that exercising outdoors is more beneficial to health and wellbeing than indoor exercise (Source: Science Direct).

Business benefits of physically active staff

In addition to the aforementioned reduction in power demand from supporting physically active working days, physical activity reduces stress levels and aids in mental and physical resilience. This has the benefit of reducing sick days and improving concentration and team morale. Anyone who has been through resilience training at work will have been told to eat healthy and exercise as part of that.

The benefits of these outcomes mean that businesses have more productive employees, using fewer sick days and less power and generally creating a healthier, happier office.

Below are a few hints and tips on how to achieve a healthier, less power hungry workspace.

1. Standing desks

picture of a person standing at a desk

Businesses can purchase, at relatively little cost, desk-top extensions (standing desk risers) which allow staff to convert their desk to a standing desk. This allows staff to stand or sit depending on their level of comfort, mood and what they’re doing, while continuing to work. They help prevent and manage back pain (a common complaint from desk-based workers), help reduce risks of weight gain and help to manage mood, as staff feel more in control of their working position.

2. Headsets

Headsets, rather than fixed telephones, allow staff to get up and walk around during a call. For anyone wearing a step-counter watch, this allows them to work towards their step target each day just by talking to people on the phone and doing their job.

Ensure there’s an area in the office where they are free to walk around while talking. It’s a simple fix, and not all will take it, but I personally know a number of people who, on multiple occasions, used to walk 10,000 steps or more while dialling in to long conference calls (whether a conference call should ever be that long is another question entirely!).

Even if you don’t have a headset or a standing desk, try instilling a habit of simply standing up whilst taking phone calls. This can be an effective method of getting out of the chair, giving your back a break and stretching your body.

3. Moving Meetings

If your office is near to green space, consider encouraging active meetings. Note I have deliberately talked about “moving” rather than “walking” – this is because, if designed appropriately, these meetings are inclusive for people with varying levels of physical ability and should not make anyone feel excluded.

One issue that often happens in sedentary meetings is that people tend to speak in order to fill the allotted time – whereas a predetermined route outside of the office tends to be more distance-based than time-based. People look less at their watches and focus more on whether they have covered everything they wanted, or needed, to discuss.

If there is a clear route to take through the green space then the active meeting has a clear end-point. This aids in ensuring that the meeting is finished by the time the route is completed.

While this may not work for larger, more formal meetings, regular catch ups can be significantly enhanced by through moving and talking. Not only will this help to manage stress levels but it can help with productivity.

Some key co-benefits associated with moving meetings include:

  • Getting staff away from their screens (occupational health and safety requirements) and out of the office (mental health benefits);
  • Less paper printed for meetings;
  • Less energy used through unnecessary screen and meeting room time; and
  • Freeing up valuable meeting room space.

There’s a lot of information out there on how to hold a productive moving meeting. Try here as a starting point.

4. Stair Challenge

Where appropriate, there are a number of ways to encourage staff to take the stairs instead of the lift. One office I worked in simply installed an unreliable lift that on occasions trapped people for a number of hours but there are many less aggressive options. These can include placing posters on each landing saying how far they will have walked if they used those stairs every day for a year. A quick internet search will provide you with a wealth of free options.

poster describing a stair challenge

Alternatively, if you have some budget, programmes like StepJockey provide an integrated, online platform to help with employee wellbeing and activity.

5. Office stretching and Yoga

Office workstations, strains and lifting accidents and injuries are some of the most common office incidents and the most easily preventable. Whilst good ergonomic design and lifting techniques are obviously fundamental to preventing these sorts of issues, simply stretching and reducing the sedentary nature of the office is also an easy and effective way to prevent such injuries. These measures will also help to alleviate pain and tension caused by sitting at a desk for long periods.

Some companies encourage 10-minute group stretching sessions at certain times of the day to get prevent injuries and increase productivity. If group stretching sessions doesn’t sound like a good fit for your business, simply encouraging workers to stop and stretch once an hour can be hugely beneficial. Have a look at Bupa’s recommended desk stretches for a 2-minute stretching routine.

If you’re interested in going one-step further, Yoga or Pilates in the office is also becoming more and more common. Companies subsidise the cost of classes and use meeting rooms to host classes run by external providers. Reach out to a local instructor to enquire what the cost is of a weekly lunchtime class in the office.

This approach helps to generate a culture of movement and activity in the office, supporting the other approaches set out in this article and helping to deliver physical and mental health benefits and associated energy savings.

6. Active travel to and from work

You may already have access to incentives such as the UK tax allowances per business mile for bicycles (Source: gov.uk). Have you considered finding a way to incentivise your staff to cycle to work?

Beyond providing staff with showers and spaces to securely park their bicycles, encouraging staff to cycle to work (safely!) can reduce congestion in your office car park, reducing employee stress, making it easier for your important visitors to find a space and reduce impacts on the environment through reduction in car related emissions and associated air quality and carbon impacts. In fact the French government has identified this as being such a priority that they have just announced a country-wide annual €200 bonus for staff who cycle or carpool to work (Source: BBC).

This is of course not always possible but if you happen to be based in a location that might lend itself to safe cycling to and from work, consider whether the reduced pressure on your parking facilities would make it worthwhile to introduce an incentive scheme.

Finally

Not all options will be appropriate for all of your employees, for example some people simply are not able to walk up stairs, while others are far more active than that and will be happy to wait to go to the gym. However, by providing these options you are at least allowing your employees the opportunity to be productive whilst also moving and staying active. The co-benefit of that is a general culture of using less energy due to:

  • moving meetings reducing the power demand from computer screens and lighting;
  • active building users reducing the power demand from lifts;
  • active travel to work reducing car park congestion and associated air quality and carbon emissions from employee travel; and
  • staff may even be more likely to get up and speak with colleagues rather than communicate via email or instant messenger!

The good news is that most of these options are inexpensive and can be rolled out in a systematic way. The great news is that, by helping your staff to stay active during the day, you are promoting a healthier workplace culture and boosting productivity and providing tangible contributions to helping reduce office energy demand, all of which help to make climate goals relevant.

Green Arch Consulting is a sustainability brand advising businesses of all sizes and sectors on sustainability strategies. Contact emma@greenarchconsulting.com for more information on how we can help you integrate sustainability into your organisation.

 

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