Are you sitting comfortably? Perhaps you shouldn’t be. Extended periods in a sedentary position can slow down your metabolism, which is bad news for your blood pressure, blood sugar levels and cardiovascular health. A new piece of research suggests that some people at work are spending over seven hours a day sitting down, which is more than many pensioners manage.
You even hear it being claimed that “sitting is the new smoking”, which seems a bit over the top, and unduly lenient on Big Tobacco. But maybe we should all sit up – stand up – and take notice. What if we stood a lot more at work and kept moving around? Would our productivity improve as well as our health?
A Department of Health paper published in 2010 suggested we should take a break from sitting every 30 minutes. That would take some doing. An office full of people regularly hopping up to move about might be quite a distracting environment. And sometimes you just want to stay at your desk, “head down, bum up” as the Aussies say, to get something done.
But there are some upstanding role models from the business world who might support the idea of getting out of your chair a bit more often. Archie Norman, the former Asda boss and incoming chairman at Marks and Spencer, was famously a fan of the meeting held with all participants standing. You can see why this might work. Contributions are likely to be shorter. Minds may be focused a little more sharply. There is an incentive for everyone to finish the meeting and get back to their desk to … put their feet up.
The concept of “management by walking around” was popularised first by the tech firm Hewlett Packard and later by the management guru Tom Peters. It simply involves bosses getting out from behind their desk and going to see what is actually happening. Radical or what? There is an echo of this approach in Japanese business, where it is said that if you want to understand a problem you have to go and see it for yourself, where the action is, in the gemba, or “real place”.
But standing up to work might have other, less attractive knock-on effects. When we are sitting down we are all more or less equal. If we all stood up height differences would become more apparent, and perhaps more influential. There could be an upsurge in damaging heightism. I should declare an interest – I am 5’6. When a much-travelled and very tall FT colleague met me for the first time on a rare visit to London he seemed surprised at my lack of inches. Recovering quickly, he declared: “But you write like a much taller person!”
Some people have to stand up to work. Standup comedians, for example. One exception to this was Dave Allen, the Irish comedian, who sat to deliver his beguiling tales. “Dave Allen sitting down was a brilliant, too-cool-for-school gesture,” says Stewart Lee, the standup comedian and Guardian and Observer columnist. “He was such a good standup, he seemed to be suggesting, he didn’t even need to stand up. Then he stood up for some of the 90s to prove that he could, and then sat down again.”
Sadly, the spirit of Dave Allen is not much in evidence at the BBC today. “Last time I tried to write at the BBC all the workspaces had become hot desks, with little pointed stools shoved up by too high tables on single poles, which you could only crouch at for a few minutes, like McDonald’s tables in the 80s,” Lee says. “The whole of the comedy department seemed to have been designed by someone trying to prevent homeless people from becoming too comfortable. It would have been good to have been able to sit down to write. In the end I went to the zoo and did it there.”
Now, of course, the evolutionary neuroscience crowd are also getting in on the argument. New research from the University of Arizona argues that, after evolving from being mainly sedentary apes into foraging, nomadic homo sapiens, our brains became more developed and we in turn became capable of more sophisticated tasks. It follows, perhaps, that to remain intellectually healthy we should stay physically active. Or in other words, if you’re struggling with a task why not go for a brisk walk to sharpen up your thinking?
At the same time, the cool, flexi, hot-desking work environment has been oversold. People understandably like having a regular workspace, and like to feel that they belong. It might be a management consultant’s dream to make almost everything virtual – employees, desks, offices – but a lot of people still want a full-time job with an office to do it in. That means having desks, and chairs.
Standing up may be good for us, from time to time. Moving about will make us healthier, and may help ideas to flow. But sooner or later, whether we are a chief executive or a new recruit, we are going to have to sit down and get on with our work. The sedentary position is a great equaliser. As Montaigne knew: “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are each of us just sitting on our arse.”