Public response to health guidance on workplace sedentary behaviour

In 2015, a public health statement was published in the UK in response to growing evidence of the health risks associated with prolonged sitting. Today, an article published in BMC Public Health, analyzes the public response to media coverage of this health statement to assess its public acceptability. Here, three authors of the study tell us more.

Evidence of the health risks of prolonged sitting is mounting; sitting has been linked with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Office workers are at particular risk. In the UK, around half of the workforce is office-based, and spends much of the working day seated at a desk. We previously showed that, on average, London office workers sit for 10.5hr each weekday, with little standing or movement observed during core working hours.

On average, London office workers sit for 10.5hr each weekday.

In response to these concerns, in June 2015 a public health guidance statement was published that recommended office workers should aim to stand or do light activity (e.g. walk) for 2-4hrs per workday. The authors – seven UK academics and the director of a national sitting-reduction campaign – suggested this target could be achieved by, for example, using height-adjustable ‘sit-stand’ desks, or taking regular breaks to stand and move around.

As the first guidance to offer specific recommendations for standing and sitting time, the statement was reported by several major media outlets in the UK and further afield. Five UK newspaper websites reported on the statement, and allowed readers to publicly post comments on the story, for example: the Daily Mail and the Guardian.

The study

Our new paper, published today in BMC Public Health, examines public responses to media coverage of the 2015 workplace sitting guidance statement, via an analysis of all available comments posted on newspaper websites. We wanted to explore these comments because public acceptability can be vital to the success of public health interventions; strategies that are unacceptable to the people that they target may be practically or politically feasible.

Each of the 573 comments we analyzed fitted into one of three categories. Those in the first category questioned the credibility of the workplace sitting guidance, querying whether the authors had the knowledge and experience to offer implementable guidance, or challenging the evidence base. Some commentators felt the guidance was impractical in their own workplace, because their managers prioritized productivity over employee health, and would penalize employees for taking breaks from their desk.

The second category questioned the credibility of public health more broadly. Public health stakeholders were commonly mistrusted, and portrayed as a group with clandestine motives that conflict with those of the ‘real’ public. Some commentators, for example, felt public health serves hidden financial interests (such as increasing sales of sit-stand desks).

The third category showed commentators acting as ‘citizen scientists’, sharing their own knowledge and experiences relating to sitting and standing.

The third category showed commentators acting as ‘citizen scientists’, sharing their own knowledge and experiences relating to sitting and standing, and how to adhere to the guidance. Some shared advice on how to build inexpensive makeshift standing workstations, or integrate more movement into seated work routines.

The comments we analyzed may not represent the views of the general public; they capture the views of website readers that were sufficiently affected by a media report of the guidance to publicly respond to it. Nonetheless, they provide a glimpse into some of the possible reactions that may face public health stakeholders who attempt to implement sitting-reduction initiatives in the workplace.

Our new paper is part of a program of research that we are undertaking, with UK Medical Research Council funding (MR/N008979/1), to investigate aspects of the workplace context, and how they may shape how people respond to sitting-reduction methods. For example, previous studies (1,2,3) suggest office workers find the idea of standing in meetings to be acceptable in principle. We are currently writing up the first study, to our knowledge, to document the experiences of employees who have tried standing in meetings where all other attendees are seated. Findings point to standers’ perceptions of social processes – e.g., power dynamics, violation of social norms, public self-awareness – in shaping their experiences. We are also co-designing, with desk-based office employees, content for a new sitting reduction intervention that speaks to employees’ priorities.

Our new paper, and our upcoming work, reveals the real-world social contexts in which workplace sitting interventions would be implemented, and within which the public acceptability of such interventions is negotiated. We think it is essential that researchers, practitioners, and employers interested in reducing office workers’ sitting time acknowledge these contexts. There has been considerable work to understand which strategies may be most promising for reducing office employees’ sitting time (1,2). Our new work broadens this discussion to consider which strategies may work for whom, how, and in what contexts.

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