Sit-stand desks have surged in popularity in office spaces in recent years – but are they making the difference they should? And are they even being used properly says Guy Osmond, Managing Director of Osmond Ergonomics
Office workers are a highly sedentary population, spending up to 85 per cent of their time at work sitting, in large part for prolonged periods of 30 minutes or more.
Yet sitting down for long periods is bad for us. Not only can it cause discomfort and lead to musculoskeletal problems, but sedentary behaviour has also been linked with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, and mortality, often independently of body mass index and physical activity, as well as with poor mental health, and a lower quality of life.
The height-adjustable or ‘sit-stand’ desk is an increasingly common intervention adopted in a bid to cut sitting time and create healthier workplaces. Used correctly, they can improve wellbeing and productivity. But in many cases they are underused, or even inappropriately used, with the potential to create health and safety issues rather than resolving them.
Too many suppliers will deliver sit-stand desks with virtually no information about how to set them up correctly, or how to use them effectively. Our assessors and trainers going into workplaces see issues ranging from poor posture and incorrect height adjustment to people standing for too long. Without the right support sit-stand desks can actually end up creating health and safety issues.
The expense of sit-stand desks can only be justified, if purchase and installation is followed with the right training and support.
UNDERSTANDING THE PURPOSE
A crucial misconception is that the purpose of a sit-stand desk is to allow people to ‘stand’ to work. We see people standing for hours at a time thinking it’s doing them good. Standing for long periods can be bad for you too – leading to varicose veins, or foot problems for example.
It’s not so much about standing – it’s about standing up – the movement from one posture to another is where the benefit is.
Whenever we supply sit-stand desks, we ensure that the customer understands that movement is the key – and they need to mix sitting and standing; five to six minutes of standing for 30 minutes sitting is recommended.
Or people might like to consider the 30-minute cycle described by Professor Alan Hedge of Cornell University – sit for 20 minutes, stand for eight and move and stretch for two minutes.
CORRECT POSTURE AND POSITIONING
How you stand at a sit-stand desk also matters. Many users set the desk too low, and end up slouched forward, leaning on the desk with their head tilted up at the screen creating a very uncomfortable ‘vulture neck’. Many people also lock their knees which restricts blood flow.
With a sit-stand desk, you should stand upright with your legs apart and slightly bent with one foot marginally in front of the other. Your elbows should be level with the desk. It may be necessary to raise or tilt the monitor slightly to the visible screen top is just below eye level in order to avoid tipping your head forward.
TRAINING AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT
It’s important to keep in mind that moving to sit-stand desks represent a significant change to the way in which people work and needs to be managed in that way.
The first thing is to make sure all staff understand the reasons and the benefits of using your new sit-stand desks.
Then provide the education piece to ensure the desks are being set up and used effectively, through training, in person, or through the intranet. You might have signs and displays on the desks or around the office or use an internal social media platform such as Chatter.
And while there will always be those in any organisation who are reluctant or reject it outright, you can find your champions. Those who get it straight away can be tasked with sharing that enthusiasm with others.
A CULTURE SHIFT
It’s also vital to understand that the transition to sit-stand desks is much more than a change of furniture; it’s actually a culture shift.
I like the description of the workplace as ‘workspace plus culture’. Creating a healthy workplace is not just about the office environment and equipment, but the shared culture too.
So training is not the final step – staff empowerment is key. You need to build a culture where people take breaks, and movement is accepted and encouraged.
In my decades working with businesses I have seen a range of approaches to encourage movement, from ‘walking meetings’ to limiting the number of printers per floor so people need to move from their desks to pick up their printouts.
A similarly deliberate approach should be applied to sit-stand desks, because if everyone continues to sit, no one will feel able to move their desk up and stand.
Invite staff to set reminders to shift position using free apps, or more sophisticated software that can trigger reminders on computer screens or even on the desks themselves. Or you could encourage people to stand for certain tasks and activities – sorting paperwork for example, or whenever a colleague comes over for a quick conversation.
Sit-stand desks can work in a host of settings, from tech companies, to education, to the financial sector. Many of our customers opt for motorised versions which are incredibly easy to use and quick to adjust. Their flexibility is a huge advantage in hot-desking offices for example; while sitting is best for some tasks, a standing desk that gets used by multiple colleagues will fit all sizes, sitting or standing – provided they all understand correct positioning and usage.
A CATALYST FOR CHANGE
Ultimately sit-stand desks are just one element of a healthy workplace – the bigger picture includes both well-designed physical spaces and tools, and a culture and ethos which promotes collaboration, physical and psychological wellbeing and communication.
But while they aren’t a magic bullet – they are a powerful tool. Implemented correctly sit-stand desks can help trigger a culture shift away from static, sedentary working environments to offices that encourage more movement – that shift can be transformative for health, wellbeing and productivity.