Walk into any office and one will likely see most people seated at their workstation. Indeed, most workstations are designed to support seated work postures. Seated work is the most comfortable for most work contexts, especially in an office environment.1 Seated work is also more comfortable compared to standing for extended periods of time, particularly for lower limbs.2-4
However, time spent sitting, and more specifically engaged in sedentary behaviour and low-caloric activity, has been linked to health concerns.5 It seems that a general decrease in daily physical activity levels may be influenced more by decreased activity in workplaces than a general decrease in physical activity during leisure time .6 Even though people are making the effort to complete their recommended amount of vigorous physical activity daily, they are still considered “insufficiently active” because of the eight to 12 hours a day spent sitting at their job.
Researchers are focusing on the impact of sitting at work on one’s health, and determining what reasonable courses of action can be taken to reduce adverse health effects of office/sedentary work. One such intervention has been the introduction of sit-stand workstations.
A cure for sitting disease?
The issues associated with seated work have led to a proliferation of furniture and devices designed to increase the amount of standing and movement in an office environment. Among the most popular is the sit-stand workstation.
Many sit-stand desk/device advertisements claim that standing at work during office tasks allows one to be more active, improving overall cardiovascular health and burning more calories to combat the risk of becoming overweight/obese. Standing requires very minimal cardiovascular demands and caloric output is not much higher than for seated work. Without incorporating walking or movement throughout the day, the body’s metabolism remains at a very low level. Recent research has compared energy expenditure in sitting and standing and found no significant differences between the two postures.7-8
The benefits of sit-stand
The evidence is mixed as to whether a sit-stand desk can reduce a person’s risk of sitting disease. However, there is evidence to show that having the ability to alternate between sitting and standing regularly can help to reduce musculoskeletal discomfort and symptoms for various spinal disc problems in the back.
For individuals who have injuries or damage to the spinal discs and surrounding structures, or specific musculoskeletal disorders (particularly in the back and hips), sit-stand workstations have been shown to be beneficial and effective at managing their discomfort. An employee should receive an examination from their physician/healthcare providers first. This is important to determine whether they truly are suffering from a condition that is aggravated by prolonged seated work or a condition that would benefit from other types of intervention (increased walking breaks, exercise or stretching).
With organizations trying to decrease their office footprints, dedicated workspaces are slowly becoming a thing of the past. Increasingly, employees are required to set up at a different desk each day. With this, the importance of workstation height adjustability is critical to accommodate varying statures of individuals.
Sit-stand workstation costs have decreased significantly in recent years and are becoming a more feasible option as a standard desk across an organization. Even without considering the benefit of all employees having the option to stand, the ability to easily adjust the work surface to everyone’s elbow height is critical in reducing ergonomic risks for the body during computer use.
The hazards of sit-stand
When implemented incorrectly or used improperly, just like any other piece of equipment, a sit-stand workstation may increase risks for injury. Improperly adjusted work surfaces and viewing heights may introduce awkward postures in the upper limbs, neck and/or lower back.
Furthermore, standing for extended periods — beyond 30 consecutive minutes — may lead to unwanted physiological effects and symptoms in the lower limbs and should be avoided. It is recommended that users of sit-stand workstations frequently rotate between seated and standing work postures to reduce the negative effects associated with prolonged standing or sitting.
The following considerations should be made when implementing sit-stand workstations for office spaces or individuals:
Work surface height range
To promote neutral upper limb postures, the work surface needs to be adjustable between seated and standing elbow heights. When installing sit-stand work stations as a standard desk in an organization, accommodating the 5th percentile female seated elbow height (22.4 inches) and the 95th percentile male standing elbow height (48.5 inches) typically provides an adequate height range.
Work surface size
It’s important to consider the tasks that employees complete each day when choosing a sit-stand product. The work surface needs to be large enough to accommodate all the materials and equipment that employees frequently use.
In general, a desk surface that is 30 inches deep and 60 inches wide provides adequate depth for dual monitors and additional desk space for paper documents; however, other sizes and configurations may need to be considered in some cases. Therefore, it is generally best practice to have an entirely adjustable work surface rather than installing a height adjustable device that sits on top of the desk surface.
Height adjustment mechanism
The goal of a sit-stand workstation is to enable employees to alternate postures frequently throughout the day. Height adjustment mechanisms should be electric to allow for ease of work surface movement. Ideally, if the control can be programmed, the individual can set the proper seated and standing work surface height, minimizing set-up times.
Education is a key component to ensuring individuals understand the importance of using the proper work surface height and frequently rotating postures throughout the day. When organizations take the time to instruct employees through seminars, posters, or online courses, employees are more likely to attain the benefits and avoid the hazards of sit-stand workstations.
Sit-stand workstations will not likely minimize the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, but it can have a positive effect on reducing risks for musculoskeletal discomfort. Introducing sit-stand workstations can also accommodate more individuals, especially when a workplace moves away from assigned seating.
Researchers continue to explore interventions to help reduce sedentary behaviors at work. Promise exists with improved environmental design that encourages more active movement in the workplace and the emergence of structured movement programs.
Catherine Smallman joined EWI Works in 2013 with a Master’s of Science in Kinesiology specializing in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics from Queen’s University. Catherine provides office ergonomic assessments at an individual and group level, delivers educational training sessions, develops ergonomic design guidelines for facility planners and is involved with industrial ergonomic assessments.
Linda Miller, OT (c), OTD, CCPE, is president and certified ergonomist for EWI Works International Inc., Clinical Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Alberta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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