In 1951, a team of researchers embarked on an 18-year study of San Francisco dock workers to examine the factors that predisposed these men to fatal coronary heart disease. When they published their findings nearly two decades later, many of the usual suspects emerged as contributors to heart disease: elevated blood pressure, cigarette smoking and obesity.

Yet, one of the most striking findings from this study was that the men with short bursts of activity as part of their routine work had significantly lower death rates from heart disease. These were the dock workers who loaded cargo as new ships came in and out of port. This is the type of regular activity that was built in to a wide variety of jobs just 50 years ago.

The high cost of increasing efficiency

Back then, jobs requiring moderate physical activity accounted for about half of the labour market. Today, only 20 per cent of jobs require real activity. This transformational shift mirrors increases in diabetes and obesity rates. You can now accomplish countless tasks with the click of a mouse and a few keystrokes. While this increases efficiency, it comes at the expense of our physical health.

This epidemic of inactivity spans the globe. From the United States to India and China, technology—from computers to washing machines—minimises the need for manual labour, and our health suffers as a result. The way we cook, clean, work and make products no longer requires strenuous activity.

Because of these seismic shifts in activity levels, you now have to find ways to infuse deliberate movement into your day. If you work in a traditional office setting, it is in your company’s best interest to ensure you get some activity during the workday.

Emerging research suggests companies that provide employees with time to exercise, even during working hours, do not lose any business. In fact, this research shows how you could be more productive if your organisation gives you time to exercise during the workday. Even if you end up working fewer hours in a week, the trade-off is a net positive for you and your organisation. Other studies find that employees see significant increase in overall earnings as their activity levels rise.

The good news is that many employers are taking notice. A friend of mine recently lost 50 pounds. When I asked him how he did it, he gave nearly all the credit to the encouragement he received from his colleagues and programmes his employer offered.

Even if your peer group at work is not very active, consider what you can do to start a positive trend. Find a few moments each day when you can walk briskly. Do a few push-ups or spot jogging or anything else to break up a 10-hour span of limited activity. Ask a colleague to do a walking meeting instead of sitting on uncomfortable chairs.

The late Steve Jobs was famous for requiring colleagues and clients to go on walking meetings around his neighbourhood. When a reporter asked him why he did that, Jobs said that he could think better when he walked. If nothing else, make sure you get up several times a day and move around your workspace. Sedentary work can make you fat, sick and tired. Building movement into your daily routine will provide a buffer against today’s sedentary lifestyle. As a leading public health researcher put it, “In many ways we’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives, so we’ve got to find ways to put it back into our lives.”

The dangers of desktop dining

is-your-work-killing-you-2-250Early in my career, having lunch with a group of friends from work was one of the best parts of my day. Some days we would all go out to eat, but most of the time, we grabbed lunch in the cafeteria. Either way, it provided a mental break from what I was working on and forced me to get up and move around. Most importantly, it was quality social time with my friends.

However, as the demands of my job increased over the next couple of years, my lunchtime pattern changed. On most days, I considered myself too busy for an extended lunch and opted to eat at my desk. This allowed me to devour my food as quickly as possible, usually hunched over my keyboard reading emails. By eating at my desk I got lunch ‘out of the way’ in about five minutes, compared to the 50 minutes it took to eat with my friends.

I justified eating at my desk by telling myself it made me more productive. In hindsight, desktop dining had the opposite effect. It was bad for my relationships with colleagues, I had less physical energy, I was less satisfied with my job at the end of the workday and had fewer ideas to contribute.

When I have a busy day, I still eat at my desk. But I can now see how it is a trap because I eat more at my desk than I do when I am paying attention. By sitting and eating at my desk, I also miss an opportunity to engage in some sort of mid-day activity.

According to various studies, roughly two-thirds of workers eat lunch at their desks. And a majority don’t take time for regular breaks during the workday. This can result in trouble focussing and less time for creative thought. So to prevent that, use lunch as a natural stopping point in the middle of a busy day. Take a short walk; get outside for some fresh air. Or find somewhere to eat with a few friends at work. Use your lunch-break as a reminder to exercise and make it an energising social time.

Working while intoxicated

Sleep less, achieve less. It’s really that simple. According to a study from Harvard Medical School, lack of sleep costs the American economy $63 billion a year in lost productivity alone. In the words of one of the lead researchers, “Americans are not missing work because of insomnia. They are still going to their jobs but they’re accomplishing less because they’re tired. In an information-based economy, it’s difficult to find a condition that has a greater effect on productivity.”

Sleep-deprived driving can be just as hazardous as drunk driving; 75 per cent of the time when a truck driver runs someone off the road, driver fatigue is a prominent factor. According to one scientist who has studied this extensively, four hours of sleep loss produces as much impairment as drinking a six-pack of beer. A whole night of sleep loss is equivalent to a staggering blood alcohol level of 0.19 per cent. That’s double most legal limits.

Working on little sleep is not much better. There is a reason why surgeons and pilots now have mandated periods of rest before they are allowed to operate or fly an airplane. In 2010, an Air India 737 crashed, killing 158 people. When investigators listened to the data recorder, what they heard was “heavy nasal snoring” in the cockpit. This is just one example; hundreds are killed every year by people who get too little sleep.

If you care about the quality of your work and interactions with your peers, give sleep the priority it deserves. To make this possible, your work needs to be satisfying. Poor sleep quality is nearly twice as common among those who are least satisfied with their jobs. Even if you are not in your dream job today, it’s up to you to make sure work is not keeping you up every night. Any job is likely to cause a sleepless night on occasion. But I’m amazed by how many people go through weeks, months, or years of dealing with poor sleep due to work stress or job dissatisfaction.

It’s hard to imagine that any job is worth the damage it does to your health over time.

Excerpted from Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath [© 2013 by Tom Rath]

This was first published in the November 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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