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Work environment linked to cancer risk in employees

  • Research among employees in different working environments reveals, on average, staff in open plan offices are most likely to have poor health habits linked to cancer risk
  • A third (33%) of open plan office workers smoke, while 9% drink alcohol with colleagues three to four times a week or more
  • Employees in open plan offices are most likely to have put on weight since starting their current role (45% vs. 39% on average)
  • Two in five (42%) UK employees overeat or eat unhealthily due to workplace stress – rising to 48% of open plan office workers
  • A quarter (27%) of UK workers don’t use their lunch hour to exercise because their boss or colleagues wouldn’t approve

Employees in open plan offices are most likely to have unhealthy behaviours at work – poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking or drinking alcohol – that are common contributors to many types of cancer, according to new research from Canada Life Group Insurance.

Staff in different work environments were asked about their diet, weight, exercise, smoking and drinking habits while at work. Overall, those working in open plan offices are most likely to have the unhealthiest habits, increasing their risk of one day developing cancer. In contrast, those who work at home are on average least likely to have these unhealthy habits, demonstrating the strong influence workplace environment has on key areas of health.

With cancer accounting for 69% of critical illness insurance claims and most employees spending the majority of the week at work, improving workplace health is a key concern for staff and employers alike, and one which employers are well-placed to address.

Percentage who... Average Open plan office Shop/business floor Work from home Work outside
Are more likely to make unhealthy food choices at work 52% 58% 50% 32% 61%
Agree their job means they don’t have time to exercise 5% 58% 43% 38% 48%
Overeat or eat unhealthy food due to workplace stress 42% 48% 35% 32% 37%
Have put on weight since starting current role 39% 45% 33% 28% 37%
Smoke 31% 33% 32% 28% 36%
Drink with colleagues 3 – 4 times a week or more 11% 14% 12% 6% 9%

Table 1 Snapshot of UK employee health by type of work environment
Some office types have not been included due to small sample size.

Staff in open-plan offices most likely to smoke more at work and drink with colleagues frequently
Smoking is by far the biggest preventable cause of cancer, accounting for one in four UK cancer deaths. Overall, 31% of part and full-time employees describe themselves as being frequent or occasional smokers. Employees in open plan offices are second most likely to say this (33%), only three percentage points below those who work outside (36%) despite this type of worker potentially having more opportunity to smoke. Those who work at home are less likely than average to smoke (28%).

Among open plan office workers, a third (35%) smoke more at work than they do at home (vs. 27% on average) and three in ten (29%) have tried to give up smoking before but have found it too difficult to do so during the working week.

Alcohol consumption is linked to seven types of cancer, including breast, mouth and bowel cancer. Overall, more than half of UK employees (54%) drink with colleagues at some time. Of these, more than one in ten (11%) drink with work friends three to four times a week or more, which could lead to drinking more than the recommended number of units per week. Workers in open plan offices are most likely to do this (14%).

Open plan office workers are most prone to overeating or eating unhealthily due to workplace stress
Healthy diets could prevent one in ten cancers.4 It is concerning, then, that half (52%) of UK employees are more likely to make unhealthy food choices when they are at work, rising to 58% of workers in open plan offices and 61% who work mostly outside. Workplace stress causes two in five (42%) to overeat or eat unhealthily, with this most common among staff in open plan offices (48%).

Enabling these poor diets is the fact that 54% of UK employees say unhealthy food is easily available in their workplace. One in ten (10%) are provided with unhealthy lunch options such as burgers and chips for free on a regular basis, while 11% are given fizzy drinks.

Weight gain is often connected to unhealthy eating. Employees in open plan offices are most likely to have put on weight since starting their current role (45% vs. 39% on average). They are also most likely to have found maintaining their weight difficult (47% vs. 41% on average).

One in four (27% ) don’t use lunch hour to exercise because their boss wouldn’t approve
Around 3,400 cases of cancer in the UK each year could be prevented by keeping active, so it’s vital employees get enough exercise. However, many are failing to meet recommended exercise targets or feel prevented from doing exercise because of their job.

Among all UK employees, only 38% exercise four to six times a week or more – the likely amount needed to reach NHS recommended exercise guidelines.6 Those who work from home are most likely to exercise this amount (43%), likely due to not having to commute and having more flexibility in how they structure their working day. In contrast, only 37% of open plan office workers reach this target.

Two thirds (64%) of UK employees lead a sedentary lifestyle during the week, with workers in open plan offices most likely to say they spend most of their day at work sitting down (87%). In addition, 61% say they are too tired before or after work to exercise (vs. 64% of open plan office workers) while 51% say they don’t have time to exercise during the week because of their job (vs. 58%).

Percentage who agree Average Open plan office Work from home
I spend most of my day at work sitting down 64% 87% 72%
I'm too tired before/after work to exercise 61% 64% 47%
My job means I often don't have time to exercise during the week 51% 58% 38%
My commute means I often don't have time to exercise during the week 38% 51% 12%
My colleagues/boss wouldn't approve if I used my full lunch hour to exercise 27% 31% 14%

Table 2 Employees find ability to exercise is scuppered by work

Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life Group, comments:
“Half of us will get cancer at some stage in our lives, and this disease is by far the most common critical illness claim we receive. With employees spending the majority of their week at work, the habits we develop in the workplace can have a real impact on our long-term health. Although this is partly down to workers’ own health choices, our research reveals some workplace environments are more likely to cultivate behaviours with real health risk implications than others.

“Employers can alleviate the issue of poor workplace health by communicating positive health and wellbeing messages to staff. Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), such as those included alongside most group income protection products, are a vital tool in maintaining a healthy workforce. These services can help promote healthy actions and support employees should their wellbeing begin to suffer. All employers have a duty of care towards their employees, and regularly communicating the importance of health and wellbeing will result in a happier, and ultimately more productive, workforce.”

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