Think your long office hours are only playing havoc with your work-life balance? Think again. Family and lifestyle medicine physician, Dr Yasmin Ohlsson, says the key to good health starts at your desk…

With our ever increasing recognition of the importance of a healthy lifestyle, it’s no surprise that workplace wellness is a hot topic these days. From standing desks to cycling during board meetings, some of the most innovative and forward-thinking global businesses are setting the bar pretty high – and rightly so. After all, we spend an average of over a decade of our lives at work, a fair amount of this chained to our desks.

Chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity are the greatest causes of disability and death on the planet today, far outnumbering the effects of infectious diseases like TB, cholera and even ebola combined. In the UAE, 19 per cent of the population suffers from diabetes, and that figure doesn’t include those who are borderline diabetics, suffering from what the medical community calls ‘pre-diabetes’.

The majority of these chronic conditions are preventable, and are a direct result of the lifestyle choices we make. Sedentary living, poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, sky-rocketing stress levels and declining emotional wellbeing are just some of the factors that can contribute to our chances of developing one or more of these diseases.

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Although the physical effects of modern day living are incredibly important, stress and depression are major issues too, with research underway into the effects of work on our mental health. In a recent poll, 78 per cent of Americans described their jobs as stressful, and it would be surprising if this figure wasn’t similar or even higher in other countries.

Of course, with declining health come more sick days, lower productivity, more mistakes, higher medical costs and reduced team morale. But what do we expect when most of us work in high-pressure jobs that require little or no physical activity and leave barely any time to eat or drink? It was this realisation that ultimately led to the international workplace wellness focus we’re seeing at the moment.

office yoga

Depending on the business, workplace wellness can really include anything from a one-off blood pressure check to offering free fresh fruit. However, I believe the best and most successful programmes are those that aim to educate staff whilst creating lasting behavioural change, whether through talks, workshops or other activities. It’s essential to empower people with the knowledge they need to make better decisions and also to show them how to challenge their current habits and create new ones. Because healthy habits shouldn’t be limited to time at home or to time at the office. Instead, they should become a way of life.

So whose responsibility is it to ensure staff are kept healthy and happy? Businesses? Individuals? Or should governments be passing legislation to protect the health of their working populations? As with most of these sorts of dilemmas, it’s ideally all of the above. But it takes years for legislation to be passed and, although corporate wellness initiatives are becoming more and more popular, not every workplace has one – and even if yours does, at the end of the day it’s really up to you to make a change and maintain it. So whether your work has a health programme in place or not, here’s what you can do to start your own wellness revolution and spread the healthy living message.

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Don’t keep a water bottle at your desk

It might sound counterintuitive, but there are real advantages to having a glass that you refill at the water cooler whenever you want a drink. It’s not only good for the environment but gets you up and moving regularly. It will also help send the subliminal message that no one needs to be stuck to their chair the whole day. By being less sedentary, you will improve your own physical and mental health whilst showing your team that it really is ok to get up.

Value face-to-face contact

retro office

Don’t email or call a colleague. Walk to their desk and talk to them. This is actually great for building better team relationships and boosting morale, but again, it also incorporates some physical activity into your day. We are still social creatures and need human interaction, no matter how connected we are online.

Dare to stand during meetings

It may seem awkward at first, but no doubt your colleagues will begin to question whether they should be standing too. You might even start a trend. Of course, standing may not always be appropriate or practical, but if you persevere you’ll soon wonder how you managed to get through those long meetings without doing so. Standing meetings are slowly becoming more commonplace, so why not become your own company’s wellness pioneer?

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Prep your meals

Plan ahead and prep your lunches at the weekends. This may seem like a chore, but it means you can be sure you’re eating healthy, nutritious food and saving money on lunch and snacks. Interestingly, a recent study in the UK revealed the average office worker there spends the equivalent of approximately Dhs12,000 a year on lunch, snacks and coffees at work. One can only imagine the amount would be similar, if not even greater, in the UAE!

Take your lunch break


There’s no point prepping your meals if you’re not going to eat them, so make sure you have a break. In the cooler months you could even go outside to eat and top up your Vitamin D levels, especially as Vitamin D deficiency is such a problem in the UAE. You’ll be far more productive after a break and it’s a much smarter way of working efficiently and effectively.

Get strict

If you’re prone to letting the hours slip by whilst you’re busy working away, set a timer on your phone to remind you to stand up every 20 minutes, even if only for two or three minutes at a time. It can take some getting used to, but you’ll soon get into the swing of things and enjoy your regular standing breaks.

Protect your back

Don’t be shy about asking for an ergonomic assessment. A laptop riser and a correctly positioned chair might just save your neck, back and posture. Even just a few months of using ill adjusted equipment can cause serious damage, so make sure your personal workspace is set up correctly.

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Leave on time

Never underestimate the importance of leaving on time when it comes to maintaining work-life balance and job satisfaction. Realistically, it may not always be possible, but it’s probably much more doable on a regular basis than you think – especially as one of the most common reasons for not leaving on time has nothing to do with workload and everything to do with worrying what others might think of us. Unfortunately, this can lead to poorly and haphazardly completed work which you’d have been much better off doing the next morning when rested and fresh.

Talk to your boss about the importance of workplace wellness

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Introduce the concept or, if you are the boss, consider introducing a workplace wellness programme. They can be as big or small as you like and, with employees who participate in wellness programmes taking approximately 70 per cent fewer sick days than those who opt out, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Hitting the gym after a long day at work is all well and good, but the truth is no amount of exercise will counterbalance the detrimental effects of a sedentary day, and no amount of weekend healthy eating will repair the damage done by a working week of poor dietary choices. As increasing evidence emerges linking our inactivity and general bad habits to chronic health conditions, you may have heard the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’, designed to demonstrate the degree of danger associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

This is why it’s so important to make wise choices and find creative ways to do so, even if your workplace is not naturally set up for it. You may even encourage your colleagues to start adopting healthier habits too.

Remember, you don’t have to do everything at once. If you’re hesitant about how your actions will be received, just introduce a new one every week or so. And don’t be afraid to set a positive example, take control and make changes in your own life –before you know it you’ll start seeing changes in others too.

Dr Yasmin Ohlsson is a health and lifestyle consultant and the founder and director of Neamedica, a UAE-based consultancy helping both individuals and businesses improve health and wellbeing. She is an accredited coach and also works in London as a family medicine doctor. Email her at or visit for more information.

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Originally published in Good magazine
Images: Getty