The Times, 10 May 2008


This week, Norwich Union Healthcare announced the results of a survey of office-workers which found that a third admitted to being hungover at work. If you assume, perhaps rather naively, that, say, 10% of office workers are teetotal, then I would suggest that means at least half of those surveyed are big fat liars. I haven’t had an office job since it wasn’t legal for me to drink, and even I have been at a desk with a hangover. And of those who had been drunk or hungover at work, 85% reckoned it had affected their performance. Which means that a whopping 15% can do their job equally well when pissed, something which explains how come they have so much time to send round pictures of kittens doing something adorable.

I suppose I should be horrified at yet another statistic proving Britain’s endemic alcoholism but, providing they all got the bus to work, I find it rather heartening. Where better to be drunk or hungover than at a desk? What harm could you really do? It’s not like we have the death penalty, you’re not going to tick the box marked, ‘Early Grave’ in a boozy blur. The worst you’ll probably do is have a crafty kip, and that’s not objectively very bad.

In fact, it would probably be the best thing you could do for your lower back pain, which is even more widespread amongst office-workers than slurred words and lost balance. For the other desk-based research released this week reveals that sitting up straight is the worst thing you can do for your back. Now since no-one but Pilates teachers sit up straight anyway, you’d think this would be good news. The rest of us hunch over our keyboards like we’re guarding nuts from marauding squirrels. But it turns out our backs are at their happiest if we sit at an angle of 135 degrees, or for want of an illustration, leaning right back in the time-honoured snooze position.

Sitting properly is a serious business – the British Chiropractic Association reckons that 32% of us spend ten hours or more sitting every day. I reckon it’s more like sixteen hours a day, with eight hours off for bed. The only time in an average day when I am not sitting is when I am a) on my way to somewhere, b) on my way back from somewhere, or c) playing with the Wii Fit. And one of the games on that involves sitting totally still and doing nothing. In case you were wondering, I am the house record-holder by a factor of 500%. My boyfriend quite literally can’t sit still for a minute. I, on the other hand, can sit almost completely immobile for 152 seconds. I am the Zen master of sitting.

But then, my evening job is being a stand-up comedian, so I associate standing with being at work. I think that means that the rest of the time, I’ve earned the right to be both sedentary, and extremely serious-minded. If you want me to stand up, or be anything more than mildly diverting, you’ll have to give me at least a quid.

The problem for chiropractors is that sitting is, by and large, brilliant. Two thirds of people apparently get home from their sedentary job and sit down again. Well, of course they do. They’re hardly likely to eat their dinner standing up. Show me someone who is wandering the house, trying to fork up spaghetti while negotiating the stairs, and I’ll show you someone who will fall, choke, or possibly both. Our leisure activities (and I don’t have a survey to back this up, so it is, technically, a guess) are primarily: watching telly, reading books, playing video-games, trouncing one another at backgammon. All those things are easier when you’re sitting down.

Besides, no-one really wants a non-sitting job, because they pay peanuts. The last time I had a standing job, I worked behind the counter at a video rental store. I earned £3.30 an hour, and the minute I could leave and treble my salary overnight, I did. And non-sedentary jobs come with their own perils. What you win in lower back flexibility, any shop-worker will tell you, you really lose in the sore feet area. Lollipop ladies stand all day, and they get nutters driving at them on a regular basis. I imagine back pain is quite a likely consequence of being run over, so their gains are temporary at best.

This is almost always true with things posture-related – any gain is outweighed by a loss. Once over the age of, perhaps, twelve, human beings are simply designed to be in a state of minor, chronic pain at all times. According to this week’s research, for example, hunching is better for your back than sitting up straight. That may well be true, but it’s a lot worse for your neck. I hunch like Quasimodo looking for something near his feet, and I can’t deny my lower back is just fine. But I have to write and drive with a shoulder brace on, because otherwise my neck fuses into a solid lump and I can’t move my head at all, like the opposite of an owl. The first time this happened to me, I was on my way to a gig in York, and I had to do the whole thing rotating from the feet, like a Dalek. And not one of the new, flexible ones, either. One of the rubbish old ones, like a traffic cone. Other comedians find groupies in their dressing rooms. I found a woman waiting outside mine, offering me a number for her osteopath.

Norwich Union Healthcare’s hangover survey also found that those who worked in the media and creative industries were most likely to turn up to work hammered: 41% of them had been to work drunk- four times the average. This probably explains why so many people in television have been incapable of, say, giving an award to Catherine Tate rather than Ant and Dec, when she’d received the most viewer votes. And perhaps why, during the second half of the British Comedy Awards 2005, broadcast ‘as live’, or to put it another way, ‘pre-recorded’, viewers were still encouraged to ring in and vote for an award that had already been given to the people who hadn’t won it. ITV, and Michael Hurll Productions, have apologised for the ‘mistake’, but pretty much nobody has explained how this could possibly be a mistake. They gave out the People’s Choice Award, in front of a live audience, then they asked people to ring in and vote for it. Even in Catherine Tate’s new guise as a time-traveller, it’s hard to make that one work.

Interactive television is predicated on mutual respect between audience and programme-maker, and that needs to be beyond reproach. We agree not to vote for someone who sings like a walrus to be Nancy, they agree not to charge us and then ignore our votes. When Andrew Lloyd Webber stalked off the set of I’d Do Anything two weeks ago, furious at the audience’s choice of the weakest two singers, it might have looked petulant, but at least it proved that the audience had the power they were promised.