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Are we still stuck at our desks?

Helen Smith

In October, 140 delegates head to Portugal for the latest HR Summit. The premise: that distance from their routine enables a proper exploration of current HR issues. This prompted Helen Smith, Group Commercial Director at Benenden, to consider a recent study of the UK’s desk-based culture.

On paper it sounds like a nice trip abroad. Who wouldn’t want to spend three days in sunny Portugal discussing the topic they love? But the key premise is that October’s HR Summit, organised by Summit Events, does genuinely enable the time and space for employee wellbeing professionals to get to the root of current issues. In a twist on that premise, I’ll be sharing some recent research carried out by Benenden to show how a stuck-at-the-desk culture is still prevalent in the UK economy, and why the HR Summit could be a great opportunity to discuss how we encourage a change in attitude.

Benenden used a survey of 2000 people to explore the typical lunch breaks of UK workers. What became immediately clear is that the traditional ‘lunch hour’ is a thing of the past. We know that workplaces have varied rules on the amount of time that employees can take for a lunch break, but our research found that nearly 60% are having even less than 30 minutes. A YouGov poll from 2015 found that in a five day working week, the average working day was 8.6 hours. So in an office day that might last for that length of time, mostly sat at a desk, alarm bells should be ringing for employers if they know that proper breaks are so little valued – or so little used.

Our research found worse – 1 in 4 workers admitted to regularly eating at their desks and 40% of these said that ‘too much work’ meant they felt they couldn’t make the most of the time granted them for a lunch break. Whilst these are still minority statistics, if the survey does represent the entire UK workforce, then potentially 10% of our workforce feels they are trapped at their desks throughout the working day.  We need to understand why these people feel compelled to stay at their desks in order to tackle the issue, but how?

This is concerning because it’s widely, and quite obviously, recognised that workers need to ensure they take a break – whatever they are allowed – and get away from their desk (or place of work). Government advice states that breaks should be in place to support health and safety – this is supported by legal minimums for the length of break that should be offered. In addition, a simple Google search throws up a multitude of articles offering advice around the need for rest breaks – for example, that proper breaks allow you to refresh the mind and have time to refocus – perhaps on the afternoon ahead. So why are we ignoring the standard advice? Or even, what is making us ignore the advice? Who takes the blame?

As organisational leaders, we have a heavy responsibility in this situation. We might like to kid ourselves that it’s the employee’s choice and that we’ve created a lovely, open environment where the employee has the flexibility to choose what to do with their lunch-break. But anecdotally, from my own experience, even the smallest factors can be a discouragement. Are other employees frowning when someone heads away from their desks? Are any deadlines just that bit too prescriptive – e.g. noon, 1pm, 2pm? Are there the proper facilities for staff to escape to? That stale, neutrally-painted café isn’t always the most welcoming environment.

We’ve all had a snigger at those multi-national tech companies with wild offices full of bean bags and slides, but there’s a basic starting point somewhere in there: providing a reason to escape from the desk. That could be one thing for employers to consider. I don’t intend to provide a list of solutions but it’s a discussion to be had.

Not long after Benenden’s research on the death of the traditional lunch hour, we also conducted research on whether our workplaces are making us ill. The results of that survey confirmed a diagnosis that our desks – or workplaces – are a place that we feel glued to, no matter what our health status. This is shown in the results where 46% of us will still go into work when we are ill. This isn’t a particular surprise, and similar statistics can be found in other pieces of research. But what then really surprised me was that only 25% of us feel healthy at work on a regular basis.

We dug deeper into that train of thought and found that three-quarters of employees do not feel that their employer are actively encouraging good health and wellbeing. This seems to run contrary to research pieces such as that published by the Reward & Employee Benefits Association for their recent conference, where a majority of employers are claiming to have brought in wellbeing policies or strategies. This suggests that there’s a potential disconnect between what an employer thinks they are providing and how much an employee feels they are being supported. This should be disappointing for employers – as I said in a press release alongside our research, “we spend so much time at work, it should be a place where we feel happy and healthy.”

Let’s gather the evidence together: our lunch breaks are dwindling, we’re not making use of them when they are available, we think we have too much work to get a break away from the desk, we’re going into work even when we’re ill, and finally, we’re not consistently feeling healthy when we’re at work. This is all despite employers saying they are providing wellbeing strategies. I did feel that some recent research pieces were a bit celebratory in stating HR leaders are on the case when it comes to wellbeing. I would venture to say, we have a lot more work to do.

I’m hoping that I can talk through this frankly with HR leaders at the forthcoming HR Summit. At Benenden we believe in a holistic approach where employers are providing a wide range of solutions to support and boost employee wellbeing – not just reactively, but both before and after issues occur. Employers can help their colleagues understand their health, support their health, and help them regain their health should issues arise.


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