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Whether working from home, returning to the office or adopting a mixture of the two, for the many people who spend their working days at a desk, maintaining their wellbeing can be a challenge. A survey from 2018 found that 82% of UK office employees spent between four to nine hours a day sitting at their desks, and a startling 64 percent claimed their office environment had a negative impact on their health. 

For employers, ensuring that their team is happy and healthy is always a priority. Alongside the usual good practice of considering office ergonomics and providing suitable desks and chairs, bringing yoga into the workplace can help to support employee wellbeing and counteract some of the issues that working at a desk can exacerbate. 

Whether people use yoga for anxiety and stress reduction, or focus on improving their flexibility, the practice can make a huge difference to the wellbeing of desk-based employees. 

Health implications of working at a desk

There is no official data on what proportion of people work primarily at a desk in the UK, but it’s clear that a vast swathe of the modern workforce does so – whether it’s in a call centre or as a freelancer. In fact, it is near-inevitable that many of us spend much of our professional lives behind a screen, and it can feel as if the sedentary nature of our work is a significant barrier to full fitness and health. 

Long periods of daily sitting have been perceived to have such a negative impact on health that sitting has been dubbed “the new smoking”, and although the claim is somewhat overstated (as activities, smoking and sitting simply aren’t comparable), there is evidence behind the concern. A sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, all-cause mortality, cancer mortality, depression, and diabetes. It was estimated in 2016 that, if prolonged sedentary behaviour was eliminated, 69,276 UK deaths might have been avoided.

It appears that hours of sitting is harmful regardless of calorie intake, and experts theorise that that immobile muscles may lose the ability to metabolise fats and sugar as efficiently as they should, leading to high cholesterol. Inactivity can also make people feel less comfortable in themselves. It may decrease their base level of fitness by reducing what is known as “non-exercise activity thermogenesis”, or NEAT, which is the amount of energy people burn simply by going about their everyday lives. For example, a person who has to climb several flights of stairs to get to their flat will burn more energy through NEAT than someone who can take the lift. 

Working at a computer can also put strain on the upper body, neck, shoulders and arms. There are few of us who don’t spend much of our time stooped over our phones, and when this is combined with working at a desk, the extended periods spent with our spine out of alignment can contribute to poor posture. This often leads to back ache and discomfort, while the sitting position also causes tightness and inflexibility in the hips and legs.

Offering yoga in a corporate setting  

Yoga has a broad range of evidence-backed benefits, and many of these can help to prevent or alleviate the negative impact that working at a desk can have for many people. Evidence suggests that practicing yoga can help to prevent or manage the development of chronic health conditions, and as an accessible stretching and strengthening exercise, it can also relieve the aches and pains associated with being desk bound. 

Bringing yoga into the workplace by offering in-office classes or subsidising yoga courses could help companies ensure staff wellbeing, and reduce the costs of absenteeism (which was estimated to have cost the UK economy £18 billion in 2019) and staff turnover. It can also create a more upbeat work environment by supporting employee’s wellbeing, helping them to feel happier and healthier, and less adversely impacted by their sedentary roles. 

Yoga has been linked to a variety of health-boosting outcomes, including reduced blood pressure, lower heart rate and lower cholesterol, which can all contribute to improved cardiovascular health. It has also been acknowledged as a “promising, cost-effective option in the treatment and prevention of diabetes, with data from several studies suggesting that yoga and other mind-body therapies can reduce stress-related hyperglycemia and have a positive effect on blood glucose control” by Diabetes UK. 

In terms of more everyday benefits, yoga can: 

Reduce the strain that comes with mentally taxing jobs: 

There are stresses in every job, but mind-body practices such as yoga can help people improve their mood through its effect on their brain and nervous system. Studies suggest that taking part in yoga classes can release so-called “feel good” neurotransmitters, reduce the stress hormone cortisol and induce the body’s relaxation response. 

Promote flexibility and relieve stiffness:

One of the most well known benefits of yoga is that it can make us more flexible through the habit of gentle stretching. While few people will ever achieve the impressive pretzel shapes of Instagram yogis (many of whom are former gymnasts and dancers), regularly taking part in yoga allows people to focus on points of tension and relieve muscle stiffness, regaining a larger range of movement. 

Increase body awareness and improve strength: 

People can develop musculoskeletal problems over the course of months and years through the ways they unconsciously hold themselves – for example, habitually slouching forward with tiredness over their desk, or tensely holding their shoulders up towards their ears. Yoga increases body awareness, helping people to notice when they make unconscious changes to their position and posture out of tiredness or habit, and begin to correct them. With time, yoga practitioners also build core strength, which makes sitting and standing with an aligned spine far more comfortable and effortless. 

Making employees as comfortable and happy as possible in their roles is a key part of maintaining productivity and protecting their wellbeing. By using yoga within a work environment, employers can ensure that everyone in their team feels at their best. 

This post was written by The Minded Institute, leading providers of yoga therapy and mindfulness training.