How following medical advice can sometimes have the most unexpected consequences

Now I am not normally a reader of “Work and Health in Canada” but one of my customers apparently is, for noticing just how much of the day I spend standing up, he pointed out to me an article in that august magazine in which it states that standing up at work is bad for one’s health.

It appears that workers who stand up all day are twice as likely to develop heart disease as those who sit down all day.

And this is not a health risk to be sneered at because standing up all day generates pretty much the same level of propensity to heart disease as can be gained from smoking regularly.

I found this particularly interesting because I think traditionally the idea has been that standing up is better than sitting down.

But the news  got one of my friends worried.  He does have a job which requires being seated at a computer terminal and he has recently been told by his GP that he should never be seated for more than 30 minutes at a time.  After that he should get up and wander around.

The trouble is, he told me, what to do and where to go when taking a break from sitting down.  One can of course go to the toilet but, he said, one’s colleagues notice if one suddenly starts popping off in that direction 10 or more times a day.

“I tried going over to the desks of one or two colleagues to pass the time of day, but both my supervisor and my colleagues quickly got tired of this one.  So in the end I just went for a walk around the building.  It takes about three minutes, but that is apparently enough to save me from whatever terrible illness it is that I can get from sitting down too much.”

“Did that resolve matters?” I asked.

“Not really,” he told me, “because one of the directors apparently had watched my new habit of getting up and leaving the building, and accused me of sneaking out either to smoke or to have clandestine meetings with a member of a rival company to whom I was passing over state secrets.  It seems that some of the smokers in the office had devised the tactic of walking around the building as if going to the annexe where we store past files that are kept ‘just in case’ and having a fag on the way.”

“So what happened then?”

“It turns out there is no easy way to prove that one is not a smoker without actually inviting others to sniff your clothes and breath – which is not normal procedure when talking to the boss – so my chum told the boss exactly what he was doing.  Also when a rival comes up with a similar advertising campaign to one’s own it is very hard to prove it was stolen.”

“Did that satisfy the boss?” I naturally asked.

“More than that.  My pal is one of those guys who never uses five words when 250 are available, so he expanded his exposition somewhat and said that the health benefits from the walk were not just longer life and less likelihood of various cardiovascular diseases suggesting the activity also makes the brain work better, because it involves a greater intake of oxygen that one gets by just sitting at the desk.”

“I guess he had to let you all carry on in the light of that,” I said.

“More than that.  The boss told everyone in the offices that they had to go for a walk every half hour to improve productivity.”

“And did it improve productivity?”

“No, not at all, quite the reverse,” I was told.  “The smokers liked it of course and took full advantage, but several members of the team who are, what shall I say, a little on the heavier side, objected, and one who did try it was taken to hospital with exhaustion before he could make it back inside.   But the biggest problem was that the boss failed to signify in the order about going out for a walk, just how far that walk might be.  Quite a few of the staff got into the habit of walking to the local supermarket and doing their shopping, while a group from marketing formed a walkers’ club.”

“There’s surely not much wrong with a walkers’ club is there?” I asked.  “I would have thought that such a thing would just make everyone healthier.”

“You obviously don’t know too many people in marketing,” he said, and I agreed that was true.  “They are phenomenally competitive,  and after the first couple of days they began to challenge each other as to who could walk the furthest in a limited amount of time.   By the end of the first week they were coming in in track suits, doing limbering up exercises, bunching at the door five minutes before the off and then racing out across the car park and into the great wide spaces.

“They had time keepers, route checkers to make sure no one cheated, referees, a panel of judges to resolve finish line disputes, and charts showing who had done what each day.  Within a week they had a team of sponsors lined up, a TV deal with Channel 4, and a series of interviews with the Financial Times about how healthy living was helping the company make ever greater profits.

“And was the company making ever greater profits?”

“Strangely yes,” he said, “but no one can work out how.  As far as I can see no one is doing any work at all now, and yet our turnover has just doubled.”

A silence settled over the room.

“Odd that,” I said.

“Very odd,” said he, and we decided to take a quick stroll around the warehouse.

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