The Health Dangers of Your Desk Job

Working in an office may present some health risks

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

We’ve all come down with a case of the Mondays before, but could your job really be putting your health at risk?

Sitting All Day

The Mayo Clinic lists slouching as one of the major causes of back pain from work. Take note of how you’re sitting at the computer. Are you slumped over? This position could cause muscle fatigue, stretched ligaments and strained spinal discs — all of which can lead to pain. The 2011 Take-a-Stand Project reduced a worker’s sitting time by 66 minutes and saw an average reduction of upper-back and neck pain of 54 percent, with improvements reported within two weeks.

Maybe you could live with the back pain, but an array of other health problems can come from sitting for long periods of time, such as:

  • An elevated risk of colon, endometrial and lung cancer
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome (problems like high blood pressure or blood sugar)
  • Heart disease

One study from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found women who reported the highest amounts of time spent sitting had an increased risk of early death from all causes.

Office Snacking

Whether you’re celebrating a co-worker’s birthday or cramming a cookie before that 4 p.m. meeting, office snacks can be a health hazard.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that many people begin snacking when they see or smell others eating, they’re feeling stressed or they’re tired. These are all situations common in an office. One study published in the Journal of Nutrition found those who ate more than three times a day were more likely to be in the overweight body mass index range.

Being overweight puts you at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney and liver disease, cancer, stroke and many other health problems.

If you’re distracted by the urge to eat, keep in mind that the recommended snack size is about 200 calories. Also, make sure you’re eating because you’re hungry — not because you’re bored. The Journal of Nutrition study offered tentative evidence that snacking while not hungry negatively affected energy levels and led to weight gain.

Overbearing Stress

Technology can be a blessing and a curse. With constant connections, our workdays are no longer 9 to 5. With these added hours comes added stress, which can carry several health problems.

A Northwestern National Life survey found that about a quarter of employees listed work as their primary stressor. The American Psychological Association lists some of the symptoms of stress as feelings of anxiety, irritability or depression; trouble falling asleep or staying asleep; headaches; digestive problems; and problems focusing. It can also affect your immune system. This stress may lead to obesity or heart disease if you turn to eating, drinking or smoking to cope with your stress.

Lack of Sunlight

As winter nears and daylight diminishes, some office workers may be missing out on important sunlight. While we all know too much sun can lead to skin cancer, vitamin D deficiencies also carry some heavy problems.

Environmental Health Perspectives notes that a lack of vitamin D negatively affects our bones. A 2007 study by the Agency for Healthcare Policy and Research found that low levels of vitamin D in adults can worsen osteoporosis, a disease where your bones become fragile and are more likely to break or fracture. The deficiency can also cause osteomalacia, a painful condition of softening bones.

Staring at the Computer

Eye strain from staring at a screen, otherwise known as computer vision syndrome (CVS), may affect up to 90 percent of office workers, according to past research.

CVS doesn’t pose a permanent threat to the eyes, but it can cause discomfort like strain, redness, dryness, blurriness or a burning sensation in the eyes. It can also cause back or neck pain. However, some simple steps like sitting with good posture, having good lighting and blinking regularly can help reduce the effects of staring at a monitor all day.

Caffeine Addiction

Caffeine is a drug, and it can cause dependency. While coffee addiction is a joke for some, it can come with consequences. Pregnant women should not consume more than a cup of coffee a day (or its caffeine equivalent).

People taking certain medications or patients with heart or bleeding disorders may also need to abstain from caffeine. Research suggests healthy adults should limit their daily coffee intake to 400 milligrams — no more than three 8-ounce cups. If you consume more than that, you may experience muscle tremors, an elevated pulse, raised blood pressure, trouble falling or staying asleep and stomach problems, the Mayo Clinic reports.

Caffeine could also have emotional effects like nervousness, irritability or restlessness. Withdrawal can lead to head or muscle aches; a depressed or irritable mood; nausea or vomiting; and fatigue, drowsiness or lethargy. If you’re trying to cut back on your caffeine intake, do so gradually to avoid these symptoms.

Risk of Depression

More money, ensuring job security, pleasing clients — there are plenty of reasons you may work longer hours or take another job. However, overworking can increase the risk of depression.

One study found those who had workdays of 11 hours or more were twice as likely to develop major depression compared to those with 8-hour workdays. Those at risk were also found to consume more alcohol. Other studies have shown that depression from being overworked may worsen over time.

Overtime and Your Heart

The European Heart Journal studied more than 6,000 civil workers and found that overtime independently increased employees' risk of coronary heart disease. Researchers compared those who worked three or four hours extra every day to those who did not work overtime.

Long Commutes

Sometimes, a long commute is inevitable, but that doesn’t stop its effects on your health. A study by the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that a long commute negatively affected workers’ waist size, body mass index, blood pressure and metabolic scores. Another study found that those who commuted with a car gained 3 pounds more than those who didn’t — even with weekly exercise.

Review Date: 
October 10, 2014
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Last Updated:
October 13, 2014