08/09/2014

By Human Factors Consultant and Croner Author, Robert Stuthridge.

Sit–stand is not a new idea. But with workplaces increasingly using “hotdesks” as part of “agile” work strategies, it is becoming more popular.

Sit–stand, health and performance

From an occupational health perspective, sit–stand has been proposed to reduce risks associated with excessive sitting or standing, including: back pain; neck pain; Type 2 diabetes; colorectal cancer; heart disease; leg circulatory disorders; fibromyalgia; obesity; depression; impaired cognitive function; and premature death. Researchers report mixed findings regarding direct productivity benefits of sit–stand working which, in part, may be due to variances in how productivity is defined.

Treadmill desks

The idea of “treadmill desks” has recently emerged. Treadmill desks enable users to walk while working, which may sound appealing in terms of stimulating metabolism and cardiovascular performance while mobilising the musculoskeletal system, but together with these potential benefits, there may be drawbacks. Comparing treadmill and seated performance found that treadmill walking was detrimental to fine motor skills and mathematical problem solving.

Facilitating sit–stand work

Sit–stand working can be achieved in several ways. One solution provides work surfaces at a variety of fixed heights, ranging from seated elbow height to standing elbow height. This allows people to alternate between sitting and standing as they move between work areas. For example, a person might use a notebook computer at a desk or a taller filing cabinet. An advantage of this approach is that no equipment is purchased. A disadvantage is that, if work heights do not fit each worker, awkward postures may occur.

Another solution is to provide a standing height workstation with a tall chair. This can work well if an appropriate footrest and optimum height work surface are provided, but is only cost-effective if workers rarely relocate. Otherwise, this solution can prove costly, involving a cessation of work while the furniture is reconfigured to fit the new user. Unless optimally configured, high workstations can increase discomfort in comparison with sedentary desks and are unusable by people who have difficulty standing.

The third solution is to provide workstations that rapidly adjust between sitting and standing heights. A standard height task chair is required. Electrically powered height adjustment is more likely to result in sit–stand working when compared with manual adjustment. Because this solution accords the greatest degree of user control over postural behaviour, it is preferred psychologically and physiologically.

Sit–stand work only brings benefits when it is performed; workstations will not benefit users if they remain unadjusted throughout the working day. The decision to vary between sitting and standing may be influenced by several factors, including the worker’s perception of potential health benefits of sit–stand, willingness to experiment, or external prompting.

Conclusion

Most research studies support the integration of increased sit–stand variation into the workplace, but health professionals should be aware that not all of the claimed benefits of sit–stand workstations are consistently confirmed by empirical research. Postural excess is difficult to quantify, but there are benefits inherent in affording people control over their postural behaviour and in encouraging postural change. Whether sitting or standing, low-risk postures must be achievable.

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