Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 4 August 2016

Your desk job is as bad for your health as smoking, unless you exercise for an hour a day

Long life | 4 August 2016
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Japanese housewives are so convinced of the value of office work that they get angry if their husbands come home early in the evenings; and this is why many Japanese husbands, fearing assault by the rolling pin, spend long periods at the pub before heading home very late. Japanese wives are deluded, however, if they believe that offices are places in which much work is done; on the contrary, they are places in which time is constantly being wasted.

Offices are not conducive to long and concentrated effort; they offer far too many distractions. You aren’t alone in an office, but amid people with whom to converse and to intrigue, to flirt or to fight, and in the presence of coffee machines and water coolers around which to engage in frivolous banter. There are also the frequent meetings at which members of staff tell each other what they are doing (or not doing), and give the impression of initiative by proposing ideas about what everyone should do next. Then there are the telephones that never stop ringing, and the hundreds of emails that need replying to, all getting in the way of useful work.

People who work at home will confirm that they get much more done that way; but even long before information technology made working at home widely possible, it was also recognised that offices could be places of much idleness. Claud Cockburn, who went to New York in 1929 as the Times’s correspondent, wrote about office life at that time in this supposedly work-obsessed city.

An American businessman, who would refuse to make an appointment with someone before 10.30 p.m., might give the impression that he was immensely busy, Cockburn said; but in fact he was someone who’d have ‘spent most of the day not getting on with the things that he theoretically should be getting on with, and therefore finds himself at about six in the evening with the whole day’s work to do’.

The American businessman, he wrote, would often try to relax himself ‘by little walks about the room to get glasses of ice-water, and every so often by trips in the elevator to the ground floor — to get one’s shoes shined, or pick out a cigar, or buy the latest edition of the midday papers’. ‘In extreme cases,’ he went on, ‘it becomes necessary to go around the corner and have a little drink or even play a little snooker.’

Such temptations also exist for the office worker in the modern City of London, but the good news now is that he is urged to succumb to them for the sake of his own health. For under a main front-page headline, ‘Working in an office as bad as smoking’, the Daily Telegraph reported last week that anyone working in an office would be dicing with death unless he took at least one hour of exercise every day. It said that medical research published in the Lancet had found that sitting for eight hours in a day would be more likely to result in premature death than either smoking or obesity, unless these sedentary hours were interrupted by moments of motion.

According to the leader of the research, Professor Ulf Ekelund of Cambridge University, just one hour of physical activity would ‘eliminate the association between sitting time and death’. But it needn’t be very strenuous or continuous activity. Just periodic trips to the water cooler or the printing machine would count. In fact, the pre-war American businessman described by Claud Cockburn had it right — going out to get the evening paper or to have one’s shoes shined or to have a drink or to play a little snooker would all help to keep the grim reaper at bay.

It is comforting to be told that working less in an office is good for you, but the experts go too far as usual by urging measures of compulsion. They ask that bus stops be placed further apart, and that streets be closed to traffic during weekends, to enforce more walking. This might improve the health of the office worker, but what about the old? Don’t they care about them?