The latest trend in the media is of the ‘dangers’ of sitting, specifically sitting in an office chair for up to 8 hours a day. This was illustrated to me when a few years ago I was in an office ergonomics seminar, that was sponsored by a provincial agency (not a vendor), where the presenter confidently proclaimed that ‘sitting was more hazardous to your health than smoking’, without stating any supporting literature. Not surprisingly, some audience members questioned this – how could sitting do more damage than smoking! But since that time, just a short number of years ago, much has changed; research has found that sedentary activities and overall inactivity can cause chronic disease. And, it is now generally accepted that there are negative health effects correlated with prolonged sitting.
Here is a popular Canadian news magazine’s article ‘Why sitting is dangerous health threat’ (http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/dont-just-sit-there/), it is a very well researched article, even interviewing Ergonomics expert Alan Hedge. Dr. Hedge has a sit-stand desk and yet he prefers to work sitting: “Hedge has an electric desk that raises and lowers with the touch of a button—but he never stands to use it. It’s too much of a bother. “When I raise it, I have to change the position of the screen on the computer and move things around, and I’m just not going to do that,” he says.”
“When I raise it, I have to change the position of the screen on the computer and move things around, and I’m just not going to do that,”
When considering purchasing sit-stand desks for a group, everyone should be surveyed beforehand. In my expertise, employees who already want these desks and have mentally committed to it will have the most success. If any staff members say they are not interested in working while standing, then simply do not buy a sit-stand workstation. It will save you money and a headache. I know this from experience.
Many famous people throughout history have preferred to work while standing: from Davinci, to Hemingway and to Franklin, just to name a few. Most likely they did this to enhance their writing and creativity, not to prevent chronic disease or lower back pain. During my university days a really well known and accomplished Kinesiology professor, Dr. Larry Holt, was well ahead of the ‘standing trend’ and used separate sitting and standing workstations that he frequently switched between. Today I fondly look back to Dr. Holt as a health promotion trailblazer.
The key factor in all of this is that there are many ways to incorporate standing and one does not necessarily need a fancy desk to do so. Getting up and moving from your desk every 45 minutes (or whatever time segment works for you) will be very beneficial to your health. But, since standing workstations are so trendy in the media, many desire sit-stand desks. A challenge with sit-stand desks is that they can be expensive, especially when looking at outfitting an entire office space. Compared to when someone already has a lower back pain, making a case for a proactive, preventive approach for incorporating sit-stand desks can be a difficult task.
From an injury management perspective, there is a lot of value in having at least one sit-stand unit (portability is good, examples include the Ergotron type units) available for use. These are very useful when accommodating a worker who may have a back injury sustained from either work or outside of work. Lower back injuries are the most common type that can occur, according to the World Health Organization, up to 80% of people will experience some sort of lower back discomfort in their lives. Keeping a worker at work while they are recovering is good method to keep operating costs manageable (this is of course pending a Doctor’s clearance note, if appropriate), as costs can quickly compound even for an non-occupational injury.
Typically when an individual has chronic lower back discomfort that is relieved when standing relates to the fact that sitting (otherwise known as back flexed postures) can exacerbate symptoms. To take a pragmatic and cost justified approach, I have found the following steps useful:
- Optimise the entire sitting workstation (chair, desk, etc) to the user. You may need a professional Ergonomist to complete this step;
- Recommend that the user stands more frequently throughout the workday (perhaps every 30-45 minutes); and
- Try Steps 1 and 2 for several weeks. If this system works well for the user then continue, if lower back pain persists, then a sit-stand option would be warranted (see below).
Sit-Stand Desks – My Recommendations
There are many options today for sit-stand desks and I would like to present some suggestions that have worked for me in the past! If you have any hesitation, please consult a professional! You can check out our services here: E-Consult and Ergonomics Coaching. These include buying an entirely new desk that has both sit-stand options (the most conventional approach), to retrofitting height adjustability into the desk, and to adding a unit that goes up and down on top of the desk (for example, the Ergotron system).
The most important thing to consider prior to making any purchases is both the employee’s workflow and the available funds. This is to make sure that the system would actually be used! Keep in mind that automation is always preferable over a manual hand crank for desks; hand cranks have the perception of taking ‘too much time’ to adjust so the unit tends to remain as a sitting workstation.
Lastly, prolonged standing, like prolonged sitting, is also considered to be an ergonomic risk factor so its in the best interest of the user to be aware of this. Adding anti-fatigue matting to where the employee stands can further reduce lower back pain and enhance the overall standing experience, making it more likely that an employee will use the standing function of their workstation.
Is there a ‘cut-off’ for a safe standing duration? This is a very common question that I get asked so I decided to share my solution here. I think the best strategy on the market today for recommending optimal standing durations is with the Prolonged Standing Strain Index. It classifies exposure into one of three zones:
- The ‘Safe’ Category (lowest ergonomic risk): Standing continuously for less than 1 hour AND for a maximum of 4 hours total throughout their shift.
- The ‘Slightly Unsafe’ Category (moderate ergonomic risk): Standing continuously for more than 1 hour OR more than 4 hours total throughout their shift.
- The ‘Unsafe’ Category (highest ergonomic risk): Standing continuously for more than 1 hour AND more than 4 hours total throughout their shift.
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Provide a fully automated desk that goes from a lower to higher position to allow sitting or standing integrated into the entire desk design. This is slightly more costly of all the Options, but allows the entire workstation to move up or down, instead of just a segment of the work area (see Option 3). This recommendation would also require monitor height adjustability to adapt for the standing eye height.
Retrofit height adjustable, automated legs to the current desk. This option also allows the entire desk surface to change heights easily, at a lower cost when compared to the first option. This recommendation would also require monitor height adjustability to adapt for the standing eye height.
Provide a desk mountable sit-stand system. In comparison to the first two Options, this allows for just the standing function while completing computer duties only, the entire workstation surface does not change height. This system is useful for employees that are heavy computer users, when space is limited, and when the employees’ workflow allows for such a system.
- Vendor: Ergotron; http://www.ergotron.com/tabid/640/default.aspx;
- Vendor: ErgoDesktop; http://www.ergocanada.com/detailed_specification_pages/ergodesktop_kangaroo_pro_free_standing_adjustable_height_desk_unit.html; www.ergocanada.com;
- Vendor: Health Postures; http://www.ergocanada.com/detailed_specification_pages/health_postures_taskmate_go.html; www.ergocanada.com;
- Vendor: Humanscale; http://www.humanscale.com/products/product_detail.cfm?group=quickstand
- Vendor: Varidesk; http://www.varidesk.com/
Fabricate an in-house sit to stand unit. There are many options that can be referenced on the internet today!