Standing Desks—Healthy or Hype?
December 7, 2017
How to help employees become less sedentary
We’ve all heard the warning that ‘sitting is the new smoking.’ Sedentary hours spent sitting at their desks can take a toll on information workers’ health and wellbeing. Many organizations now offer employees the option of working at a standing desk.
Standing desks cost more than traditional desks—sometimes much more. So it is logical for employers to dig a little deeper before making a significant investment across the workforce. Do standing desks actually increase employee health and wellbeing, or is the standing desk a trendy office fad?
Prolonged periods of sitting are definitely dangerous
There are numerous studies that support the fact that sitting at work all day is bad for employee health. Compounding the problem, many employees also sit outside of work hours, either watching television or using mobile devices and gaming consoles.
Studies show that prolonged sitting can contribute to:
- Obesity: Mayo Clinic conducted a study of office workers in which they had them eat an extra 1,000 calories per day. They discovered that the workers who did not gain weight sat 2.25 hours less per day, on average, than their more sedentary coworkers. Standing burns more calories than sitting.
- Heart disease: People who sit most of the day are 54% more likely to die of heart attacks, according to analysis by Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
- Disability: At Northwestern University, researchers concluded that people 60 and older dramatically increased the risk of becoming physically disabled with each additional hour a day they spent sitting. This was regardless of other exercise.
- Death: Sitting 11 or more hours per day increases your risk of dying within the next 3 years by 40%!
Is standing throughout the workday healthier?
If sitting is so unhealthy, is standing any better? Overall, there is less compelling research about the long-term impact of standing desks. However, there are potential drawbacks to spending the entire day upright, beginning with sore, aching feet. If your organization offers standing desks, be sure to include cushioned mats for more comfortable standing.
According to Alan Hedge, Human Factors and Ergonomic researcher at Cornell University, standing at work has several negative health consequences. In addition to being more tiring, standing increases the load on the circulatory system, leading to more varicose veins and a nine-fold risk of carotid atherosclerosis. Hedge also noted that fine motor skills suffered when standing instead of sitting.
Posture is another important health consideration working at standing desks. Employees can experience back pain in a seated desk or a standing desk, particularly if the workstation has not been set up properly according to height. Workspaces that facilitate better posture can help employees avoid or relieve back pain. With a standing, desk, it is important that the keyboard and mouse be at proper height to avoid carpal tunnel syndrome, while the monitor is raised high enough to avoid neck flexion.
Should organizations take a stand for standing desks?
It would seem that prolonged sitting is a proven danger and prolonged standing may have negative health impacts as well. More study is needed to measure the benefits or risks of standing desks.
Employers might be better off to opt for desks that raise and lower to convert between a traditional desk and standing desk. This gives employees an opportunity to change positions throughout the day and alternate between sitting and standing. Another option is to create different workspaces for sitting and standing and allow employees to change stations throughout the day. Keep in mind that workstations need to be adjusted for ergonomics that avoid repetitive injury and posture problems.
Help employees get moving for better health
What is clear is that movement throughout the day is very important to health. Whether employees sit or stand, they remain still. The American Heart Association recommends that all adults should walk at least 10,000 steps per day, roughly the equivalent of five miles and almost two hours of activity.
Employers should focus their wellness efforts on getting employees moving. An onsite fitness center might be one option. Consider sponsoring a walking group, yoga classes, or other fitness clubs. Create employee contests that promote physical activity rather than just weight loss. Even placing things like printers or meeting rooms a further walk away in the office can help.