Standing desks. Are they as beneficial as they seem?


They became a craze in recent years, created in an attempt to combat the array of problems that are thought to come with sitting at conventional desks for long periods of time – sometimes for up to ten hours a day with little or no movement.

Standing desks are heavily advocated by some users to address these issues – which can include an increased risk of obesity, heart disease and musculoskeletal problems such as neck, shoulder and back pain.

A standing desk allows you to adjust the height of your workspace to enable you to work in a standing position, which many believe has a positive impact on them physically and mentally in the workplace. However, others believe that they come with their own risks.

So what are the main pros and cons of working at a standing desk?

Pros:

  • Standing can help to reduce musculoskeletal pain – sitting for long periods can cause problems including shoulder, neck and back pain.
  • Standing can help to burn more calories and therefore may help to reduce the risk of obesity and other health conditions including heart disease and diabetes.
  • Standing causes less pressure to be put on the spine and altering between sitting and standing may help with managing low back pain.
  • Standing has been shown to improve concentration, creativity and productivity.

Cons:

  • Standing desks can be expensive and workplaces may be reluctant to invest in them due to budget constraints or speculation around their benefits.
  • Standing for long periods of time can put increased pressure on the lower body, which can lead to muscle stiffness and fatigue, particularly in the feet and legs.
  • Standing could also have as much of a negative effect on posture as sitting because it can encourage leaning forward/slumping if the workstation has not been set up correctly which may lead to similar musculoskeletal problems.

What does the research show?

Much of the limited research carried out doesn’t really back up the argument for standing desks one way or another and the question still seems to remain as to whether their benefits outweigh their potential risks.

In 2017, Ergonomics Journal published a study that found an increase in discomfort in all body areas, as well as showing a deterioration in reaction time and mental state in participants who were stood at a desk for a period of two hours.

Another study (2) concluded that standing desks do effectively change behaviours, but these changes only mildly affect health outcomes.

Another question about standing desks is whether people will actually use them on a longer-term basis or if they are just a gimmick. A recent study (3), published in October 2021, did show that decreased sitting duration was observed over time when participants were provided with sit-stand workstations, even in the absence of continued encouragement and/or structured instruction.

This shows that they can have a positive effect on office workers in terms of the amount of time they spend sitting at their desks.

Guidance is limited in terms of how long individuals should stand for without a break or how frequently should one alter between sitting and standing. We can also question whether using a standing desk has any more of an impact than simply sitting at a normal desk and taking regular breaks to walk around or stretch.

So how do you decide what set-up is the best for you?

Whether you decide to stick with a conventional sitting desk or go down the route of a standing workstation, the key thing to remember is that your employer has a legal duty under the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to carry out an ergonomic workstation assessment.

As a service bespoke to each employee, a workstation assessment would also allow the assessor, a qualified physiotherapist, to tailor suggestions in terms of sit/stand ratio based on their individual needs, as well as particular advice on postural recommendations and how often to take breaks.

This will help to determine what set-up is the best for you and, whichever this may be, will make sure your equipment is positioned correctly to ensure maximum comfort and minimum risk of injury or pain.

To read more about the benefits of an ergonomic workstation assessment, you can read our blog here, or if you’d like to speak to us for more information, please visit our Contact Us page to get in touch.

Resources:

  1. A detailed description of the short-term musculoskeletal and cognitive effects of prolonged standing for office computer work. Ergonomics. Published: 1st Feb 2018
  2. The effect of sit-stand desks on office worker behavioral and health outcomes: A scoping review. Applied Ergonomics. Published: 19th Feb 2019
  3. Office-Workers Maintain Decreased Workplace Sitting Time Long-Term Following Participation in a Sit-Stand Desk Intervention Study. Ergonomics. Published: 25th Oct 2021

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