Sedentary Work and the Effects at the Workplace


U.S. workplaces have become increasingly sedentary, with resulting negative health effects. Through its Total Worker Health® Program, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends an integrated approach to addressing sedentary work environments.

An integrated approach is one that protects workers from work-related injury and illness and helps them advance their overall health and well-being, on and off the job. This document describes organizational practices that can reduce the risks associated with sedentary work.

A sedentary job is defined as one that involves mainly sitting; though occasional walking, standing, and lifting (no more than 10 pounds) may be necessary to carry out duties [20 CFR* 404.1567].

More than 5 million U.S. workers hold management and professional positions, and 21 million work in office and administrative support occupations that involve long periods of sitting. More than 8 million people work in retail and sales jobs, most of which are either sedentary or stationary. Examples of retail occupations include cashiers, data entry, and call centers where service or sales employees often work in small cubicles or confined spaces [BLS 2016]. The number of workers who are sedentary is increasing worldwide and long hours spent seated at work can increase health risks.

Prolonged sitting is associated with back and shoulder pain, premature mortality, diabetes, chronic diseases, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.

A report issued by the CDC states that overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk of 13 types of cancer. These cancers account for about 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the United States in 2014, according to the latest Vital Signs report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, the rate of new cancer cases has decreased since the 1990s, but increases in overweight- and obesity-related cancers are likely slowing this progress.

About 630,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with a cancer associated with overweight and obesity in 2014. About 2 in 3 occurred in adults 50- to 74-years-old. The rates of obesity-related cancers, not including colorectal cancer, increased by 7 percent between 2005 and 2014. The rates of non-obesity related cancers declined during that time.

In 2013-2014, about 2 out of 3 adults in the U.S. were overweight (defined as having a body mass index of 25-29.9 kg/m2) or had obesity (having a body mass index of 30 kg/m2 and higher). The body mass index (BMI) is a person’s weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of the person’s height (in meters).