Sitting may be the new smoking, but standing is not necessarily the cure.
Dr. Naomi Abrams, president of Worksite Health and Safety Consultants of Rockville, Maryland, points out that standing for long periods of time has its own health issues.
“Sitting and standing both fall under the category of sedentary behavior,” Abrams said. “All you’re doing is trading one set of problems for another.”
Sitting for long stretches during the day has been linked to an increased risk of obesity, as well as cardiovascular disease and cancer. However, working in a standing position for a long period of time can bring swelling of the legs, sore feet, and general muscle fatigue.
Trying to combat sedentary work by using a standing desk can lead to other problems as well, Abrams points out. A unit that is not attached to the desk could pose a safety hazard if it tips.
“The cheap solution is not necessarily the best solution,” says Abrams, whose company provides health and safety consulting services worldwide. “The trend toward less expensive, less adjustable, and less sturdy concerns me.”
Abrams sees movement as the antidote to too much sitting. Rather than simply spending money on new furniture and redesigned spaces, companies should incorporate more movement into their culture.
“You need to rethink how you’re setting the culture of the workplace,” she said. “People are into green design, open space, and collaboration, but they’re setting up collaboration for seated areas.”
Solutions can include incorporating some standing into the workday, and encouragement from leaders for walking meetings.
“My least favorite piece of furniture in an office is the visitor’s chair,” Abrams said. “The first thing we do is gesture to the chair – please have a seat.”
Saying, “Let’s stand – I’ve been sitting all day” provides an opportunity to reinforce a culture of movement.
“That’s a cultural change that has to happen,” said Abrams, who urges people to take every opportunity to move during the workday. When a person’s hands aren’t on the keyboard, that person could be standing, she notes.
“As soon as your hands leave the keyboard, your rear end can leave the seat,” she said. “You can stand while talking on phone. You can take notes if you have a counter.”
The right fit
While standing desks aren’t a cure-all for an inactive workplace, they do have a place, she notes.
“The good thing about standing desks is that they encourage movement,” Abrams says. “If I could design the workplace of the future, the stationary desk would go away.”
Desks that can be easily raised and lowered are preferred, she said, as most people are not fit enough to stand and work for long periods of time.
“The average person, when starting out, stands for 5 or 10 minutes and sits for 30 or 40. At the top or bottom of the hour, you can stand, and then sit back down. Then do it on the half hour,” she says. “It really does have to be up and down.”
Ergonomics issues often crop up because office furniture is not adjusted properly. A computer may be in an awkward position on a desk simply because of where it is plugged in. A person with back pain may ask for a new chair, but may not know how to adjust their current chair, keyboard, or monitor.
“It’s not the employee or the employer’s fault,” she said. “It’s a lack of knowledge leading to additional purchases.”
Knowledge is key
While it’s important for employers provide information on workstation adjustments, it’s also key for them to be on the lookout for a link between ergonomics issues and employee health. An employee’s musculoskeletal issues and medical bills could be related to office ergonomics.
“I’m finding that employers are just waiting too long,” she said. “They’re waiting for employees to complain.
“I’ve seen cases where an employee goes to the doctor for five or 10 years before they let the employer know that they have a problem.”
A health risk analysis that gathers aggregate data is an excellent tool for prioritizing wellness issues, including ergonomics-related concerns, she notes.
“If we don’t know how healthy we are, if we’re not encouraging the collection of that data we have no idea what the priorities of the company should be,” she said. “Ergonomics is another tool to help keep employees healthy and not have injuries.”
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