Aus-first study shows cost-effective way to reduce office sitting time.

The introduction of sit-stand desks and associated support for Australian office workers could be a cost-effective way to reduce spiralling rates of obesity-related health issues, according to a newly published economic evaluation from Deakin University.

The evaluation looked at the Stand Up Victoria trial – funded by VicHealth and the NHMRC, and led by the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute – which supported 231 desk-based workers to stand up, sit less and move more via multiple strategies, including organisational support, health coaching, and sit-stand desks.

Twelve months after the intervention was introduced, participating workers achieved an average one hour per day reduction in their sitting time.

Lead author Dr Lan Gao, an Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Deakin Health Economics, said too much sitting time was a critical health concern greatly exacerbated for those in desk-bound occupations – 45 per cent of Australian workers.

“Workplace sitting is the largest contributor to daily sitting time among office workers, and excessive sitting is associated with serious health issues like obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and shorter life expectancy,” Dr Gao said. “This means it’s imperative we work towards both effective and cost-effective ways to decrease sitting time in the workplace. Sit-stand workstations – which allow the user to position the desk at a level convenient for sitting or standing – have been put forward as one possible solution to this issue, however up until now a barrier to their widespread introduction has been the perceived prohibitive cost. So far there has not been any published evidence of the cost-effectiveness of such workstations, particularly when coupled with the associated education and support that is needed to help ensure their uptake and sustained use, so ours is the first Australian study to show these interventions are good value for money.”

Deakin’s economic evaluation, published today in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health, estimated that if the intervention was scaled up to reach 20 per cent of Australia’s office workers, it would cost $185.2 million, but would save 7492 “health adjusted life years” by preventing a range of obesity-related diseases.

Dr Gao said this equated to a cost of $28,703 per year saved, well below the often quoted threshold of $50,000 that society was typically willing to pay for these health savings. She said the cost would also be partially offset by the $84.2 million saved in healthcare costs over the lifetime of these workers.

“Not only that, but from an employer’s perspective, adopting this workplace intervention also has the potential to reduce absenteeism and improve productivity,” she said. “Before the trial participants spent an average of six hours per day sitting at work, 12 months into the trial that was reduced to five hours. Our evaluation shows that the introduction of sit-stand desks, alongside associated supports, is a cost-effective and innovative way to promote the health of Australia’s workforce.”

The net cost of the intervention was estimated at $344 per person, but Dr Gao said this could be reduced by economies of scale arising from bulk orders of sit-stand workstations, sharing workstations between part-time workers, and providing support through online resources and local office champions.

“Ultimately this intervention has the potential to make a very significant and sustainable positive impact on reducing workplace sitting time, but most importantly it is also cost-effective, which we know is critical in making the case for a wider rollout of this program,” she said.

VicHealth CEO Jerril Rechter said all workplaces could play their part in reducing the amount of time their workers spent sitting down.

“Our lifestyles – including our work life – has become more sedentary leading to a range of health issues. There are a range of strategies workplaces can adopt to help their staff to sit less like sit-stand workstations, walking or standing meetings or simply setting prompts for workers to get up and stretch their legs.”

Top tips to sit less at work

  • Sit-stand desks can help workers quit the sit – it’s good for our health and the bottom line
  • Take a short stroll around the office during your coffee break
  • Instigate walking meetings or replace a meeting room table with a stand-up desk
  • Set a reminder to stand up or take a walk every hour
  • Sick of lunch al desko? Go for a walk around the block on your lunch break.