Evolving quickly enough?

It’s often said that our evolution as humans sits at odds with modern life.

Where once we were hunting and gathering – or fighting off predators with sharp pointed teeth, we now sit in front of a computer monitor, doing tasks that involve sitting down for the greater part of the day.

And some of our responses to external stimuli, it seems, aren’t best suited to our modern environment. The thinking goes that if we’re in danger from a predator – or otherwise hostile animal – then our ‘fight or flight’ response was a big part of survival. However, we’ve retained that response even though something like a looming deadline or a bad day at the office isn’t going to grab us in its jaw and run off with us. So we’re left unable to do either fight or flight and manage the stress symptoms as best we can.

Brave new sedentary world

Another area where our evolution seems at odds with modern life is in terms of its sedentary nature. Sure, if your job is cutting timber or assembling stuff then you may be getting quite a lot of physical activity during the day. But if you’re an office worker, then exertion is simply not required, which leaves us in a situation where we have to make amends for this by getting our exercise outside of working hours.

Reducing health risks by being active

Of course, if there’s one thing we as humans were designed for, it’s to run around and be active. This is one of the reasons that getting the recommended amount of exercise has astonishing stats for reduced health risks, among them

  • Coronary heart disease and stroke – 35% lower risk
  • Colon cancer – 50% lower risk
  • Depression – 30% lower risk

It really is incredible what a bit of exercise can do – and not just in terms of lowering the risk of various diseases. Exercise can also help us build muscle mass, keep the amount of body fat we have in check, while also being a mood booster and improving our overall fitness levels.

Health and the office

So what can we do to boost our health if we work in an office? As this blog post says, diet is also a big part of staying healthy at work – there are a lot of high-sodium and high-calorie temptations out there that can be avoided by bringing in a packed lunch.

Going back to the evolution thing for a second – now there’s an interesting area. Archaeologists have found that many of our species’ ancestors simply didn’t have the dental problems we encounter today. And it’s probably a fair bet that obesity was ultra-rare during the period of the hunter gatherers.

None of which is to say, of course, that we’re actually ill-suited to modern life. We just need to make a few concessions by getting out and taking a brisk walk, or going swimming now and then, to get to the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week.

And in fact it was recently pointed out by an evolutionary expert that in fact, the best evolution can do is approximate – so there was never actually a golden time when we were perfectly adapted to our surroundings – it’s always been about our design being adequate for survival, so it’s up to us to do the rest.

Promoting office health, supporting staff

Boosting office health isn’t something that comes with a simple answer attached. I suppose you’d have to say that any approach to workplace wellbeing would be ‘holistic’. Sure, there’s an organisational aspect to the healthy workplace in terms of providing a warm, safe, comfortable working environment for staff. Additionally there’s the health support and promotion side of things – plus the provision of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), health cover, and related wellbeing benefits.

But then there’s also a range of things that as individuals it’s our own responsibility to look into. No matter how much distance an employer goes in providing a stress-reduced work environment and mentally healthy workplace culture, there is still an individual need to approach things in a stress-savvy way and hopefully avoid succumbing to stress.

Musculoskeletal disorders and sickness absence

The sickness absence figures for 2011 show that a quarter of all sickness absence in the UK was down to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) with nearly thirty four and a half million days off caused by them.

MSDs can range from back pain to hip problems – basically anything (as the name suggests) that involves the skeleton, muscles and joints. They’re also pretty common, with around 8 in 10 people experiencing back pain alone at some point in their lives.

This week, Dame Carol Black, co-author of the government’s independent review into sickness absence said that research carried out in Scandinavia suggests that leadership and line management may have a greater role to play in minimising sickness absence cause by back pain – and that more insight into the causes of back pain could prove more useful than physiotherapy as a standalone.

The lowering of sickness absence levels

On the whole, sickness absence is down significantly from the levels it was at in the early 1990s. However, there’s still concern that in many cases people off sick long term are falling out of work altogether and into the benefits system when they could – with the right help and support – return to work with a modified task set, reduced working hours, or perhaps work for another organisation in a role that’s appropriate and compatible with the tasks they’re able to perform.

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