Sit-Stand Desks: What's all the fuss about? (Part 1 of 2)
By on 7th Jul 2014
(Part 2 of this blog is available here)
Are sit-stand desks new?
There is evidence of implementations dating back over a century, but height-adjustable sit-stand desks as we now know them have been available from Scandinavian manufacturers for about 20 years. We have been using electronically-adjustable models throughout our office for over 10 years.
More recently, products manufactured in the Far East (but often marketed as Scandinavian or European designs) have brought the price down significantly. In 2000, a Danish-manufactured 1600mm x 800mm (63 x 31.5 inch) sit-stand desk retailed at £1200 + VAT. Today the UK retail price (before discounts) is less than £700 + VAT. There are also after-market adaptors for existing sitting desks (see Part 2 of this blog).
So is “getting up” a new thing?
Dynamic sitting, movement and changes of posture have been a mantra since before the birth of ergonomics as a discipline. However, the “sitting is bad for you” message is quite recent (but probably not as recent as people think).
The “Sitting Disease”
As long ago as November 2007, the Daily Mail published this article in the UK headed “Sitting at a desk all day is as bad for health as smoking”. There were probably many similar articles at the time.
The basis of the research (from the University of Missouri-Columbia) was that prolonged sitting increased the likelihood of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. These outcomes drew the parallel with smoking (also a cause of these three disabling conditions) and this prompted the “sitting is the new smoking” catchphrase.
Recent publicity, in the UK especially, comes as a result of a Leicester study providing a meta-analysis of 18 studies and published in August 2012. This arrived at a similar conclusion.
Alongside this research, other evidence suggested that even regular exercise or gym workouts would be insufficient to counteract the damage being done by sedentary lifestyles amongst western office workers.
As a result of the publicity surrounding these findings, the catalogue of potential health woes apparently brought about by a sedentary lifestyle have been collectively dubbed the Sitting Disease.
Seeing the wood for the trees
There is no doubt that, properly implemented and used, sit-stand desks are healthy and beneficial to employees. They can increase calorie consumption, encourage movement, reduce sedentary postures and increase productivity.
But they may not!
Much of the recent purchase activity of sit-stand desks has been as a knee-jerk reaction to employee demand. In the US in particular, many retrofit sit-stand desk projects have proved harder to implement than expected. Blue chip employers are now installing successful sit-stand-only desking in new build projects but this is a very different situation from partial implementations in existing facilities.
Culture and training
In the same way that a well-designed chair will not help back problems unless the user is trained to set it up and adjust it, a sit-stand desk may just replace poor sitting postures with poor standing postures. It is also essential that users recognise the importance of mixing activities and remember not to stand or sit for too long at any one time. Taking the chair away and standing all day may solve some problems but will almost certainly create others.
It is therefore important to find a desk supplier who understands the cultural and psycho-social issues of using these products, rather than a retailer who can simply assemble it and plug it in. It is also naïve to assume that the simple act of providing users with sit-stand desks will be the panacea for all posture issues, instantly eradicating the “Sitting Disease” and increasing productivity!
Users need to understand how to adjust the desk, why they should be doing so, how long they should use the different postures and what “a good setup” looks and feels like. Otherwise there is a strong chance that the varied use will be abandoned and it will soon revert to an unnecessarily expensive sitting desk.
It is even possible to link the desk controls to the user’s computer and adopt a scientific approach to posture change. For example, SitStandCOACH is a software/hardware combination that prompts users to change posture at appropriate intervals (linked to activity and not just to time).
So what are my options?
My next blog will explore product options and provide ideas for implementation, as well as offering some warnings about pitfalls. In the meantime, in no particular order, here are several research links relating to sit-stand workstations. I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions about the veracity of each item!
- Useful blog article with several research links – http://53eig.ht/1oRyine
- University of Leicester, 2012: Sitting for protracted periods increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and death – http://bit.ly/1kcwSAs
- Ebara et al, 2008: Effects of adjustable sit-stand VDT workstations on workers’ musculoskeletal discomfort, alertness and performance – http://1.usa.gov/1kcEH9l
- University of Sydney/National Heart Foundation of Australia Case Study, 2013: Do sit-stand workstations reduce employees’ sitting time – http://bit.ly/1kcGZp7 (further references in the back of this publication)
- Choi, 2010: Ergonomic Evaluation of Electrically Adjustable Table in VDU Work – http://bit.ly/1kcKEDd
- Grunseit et al, 2013: “Thinking on your feet”: A qualitative evaluation of sit-stand desks in an Australian workplace – http://bit.ly/1kcLGz8
- Hedge, 2004: Effects of an electrically height-adjustable work surface on self-assessed musculoskeletal discomfort and productivity in computer workers – http://bit.ly/1kcJlEs
- American Institute for Cancer Research, 2011: Getting Up From Your Desk Can Put the “Breaks” on Cancer – http://bit.ly/1kcxoOY
- Extensive BBC Article, April 2014: http://bbc.in/1kcxFS6