A Positive Take on Sit-stand Workstations

Although they’ve been around for decades, it’s only recently that British organisations have started to embrace sit-stand workstations as a way of addressing specific aspects of personal wellbeing and productivity.

The story of how this shift in attitudes came about begins – as is so often the case – with a person clearly identifying a problem and expressing it in a way that encapsulates and popularises it at the same time. In this case, it appears to be an article in the Harvard Business Review in January 2013 and subsequent TED Talk in which Nilofer Merchant clearly expressed the problems with sedentary work and lifestyles and gave the world the slogan which became the motif for the subsequent debate. Sitting is the new smoking.

Having introduced the world to the problem in this way, what followed was a narrative focussed on the negative consequences of sedentary work and the potential for solutions such as agile workplaces and sit-stand workstations to resolve them.

Organisations such as the British Heart Foundation were at the heart of this narrative, identifying in a study how the effects of sedentary work included:

  • a 112% increase in the risk of diabetes
  • a 147% increase in cardiovascular events
  • a 90% increase in death due to cardiovascular events
  • a 49% increase in death due to any cause

A slew of academic studies such as this piece of research then added to the debate with their own recommendations, which in this case included:

  • aiming for two to four hours a day of standing and light activity
  • regularly breaking up sit-down work with standing using adjustable sit-stand workstations
  • avoiding long periods of standing still, which may be as harmful as long periods sitting
  • changing posture and doing some light walking to alleviate possible musculoskeletal pain and fatigue
  • recommending employers warn staff about the potential dangers of too much sitting at work or at home

A Change of Narrative

This narrative was essential in establishing sit-stand workstations as a key solution to the problem, but it is noticeable that the debate has moved on. As it did with ergonomic seating and correlated the more general focus on wellbeing and its focus on doing good for people rather than merely doing no harm.

More recent academic research such as a new study published in the Journal Psychological Science carried out by researchers at Ariel University and Tel Aviv University suggests that standing to work may improve cognitive performance as well as physical wellbeing. The study found that the mild stress associated with the effort of standing up improved the ability of participants to cope with mental tasks.

The results are based on the idea that, because our brains are engaged in the process of controlling and monitoring our posture, the mental processes involved are more complex when we are standing than while sitting, which means that our brains are intuitively more aligned with multi-tasking. The test results suggest a significant correlation between posture and cognitive performance.

Similarly, this piece published recently in the Harvard Medical School blog focuses on the benefits of sit-stand workstations rather than merely the problems they can help to address.

This marks a step-change in the way we talk about ergonomics and wellbeing in the workplace generally and about sit-stand workstations in particular. The breakthrough may have come about because of a headline-grabbing slogan that summed up the issue of sedentary work, but the debate has evolved now into one that focuses primarily on the good they do.

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