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Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Employment Today, HR Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Sit, stand or mix it up?

The message is clear—prolonged sitting is not good for us. So should we be standing more? Variation of posture and increased movement is what’s needed, say Jane Pierce and Stephen Legg.

Sitting has had bad press recently. Articles that headline “Sitting is killing you” and “Sitting increases risk of death up to 40 percent” are eye catching and draw the reader in, but they do not give the right message or the whole truth.

Advances in technology and changes in work patterns from highly physical work to mainly sedentary work, together with changes in leisure activity and transport, have given people in industrialised countries more opportunities to sit, and for longer. Thus, nowadays the average office worker spends more than half of their 15-hour waking day sitting, most of which time is at work.

International research has shown that prolonged sitting is harmful for our musculoskeletal system and is also highly associated with other conditions such as diabetes, obesity and cardiac disease. And studies have shown that doing moderate to vigorous exercise outside work hours does not seem to mitigate the negative health effects of prolonged sitting.

So should we be standing more? Unfortunately, prolonged standing also has detrimental effects on the body. Prolonged standing has been strongly associated with lower back pain, varicose veins and foot disorders. A 2005 study in Quebec, Canada, found that 58 percent of the working population stood to work, and in the UK it is estimated that 50 percent of the workforce are vulnerable to health problems related to prolonged standing.

The key word here is “prolonged”. Any activity or posture that is prolonged will have detrimental effects on the blood flowing around the body (systemic effects) and on the body’s ligaments, tendons, joints and bones (the musculoskeletal system).

The latest evidence about sitting or standing at work emphasises the importance of variation of postures and increasing whole body movement. It is essential to interrupt any prolonged activity or posture to prevent stasis (blood pooling in limbs) in the body, allowing for the body to change loading of soft tissue such as muscles and ligaments, and for blood flow to be maintained.

Current recommendations are that for predominantly desk-based, full-time occupations, a total of two to four hours in the workplace should be spent standing or engaging in light activity such as walking. Interrupting prolonged sitting or prolonged standing with a change of posture or light activity should be as frequent as every 20 to 30 minutes.

As the workplace is generally where most daily sitting time accumulates, it is a good place to begin change.

Assessing your workplace for opportunities to change the pattern of prolonged sitting before embarking on alterations will save you time and money. Involving staff in creating ideas to reduce prolonged sitting will not only engender ownership of the change, but will help to ensure that the changes are workplace specific. No changes will be sustainable without ongoing management support.

Some simple and practical examples of small environmental changes that encourage movement are placing the printer or water cooler at the end of the floor so that staff have to get up and walk, and placing tall tables in the tea room so people can stand while they have their snack break. This often has an added bonus of encouraging people to talk to each other more.

Adjustable height desks or desk top devices may be suitable for some workplaces. These may be in a hot-desk situation which staff can access for short periods. A common misconception about adjustable height desks is that they should be used in standing mode, whereas in reality they are designed to allow for variation in movement. They should be used to increase variation between sitting and standing so that movement at work is increased, while simultaneously enhancing the opportunity for maintaining productive work in either sitting or standing postures.

Creating a culture where standing is not seen as disruptive or unproductive would facilitate increased postural change at work.

Standing meetings are reported to be shorter and more productive, rather than a period of seated rest and passive participation.

Individual changes such as walking up or down stairs instead of taking the lift, not going to the nearest restroom, going to talk to a colleague instead of sending an email, standing when answering the phone are possible changes for interrupting prolonged sitting.

One rather humorous research study has explored the benefits of using “spiked” chairs to reduce sitting time at work—participants had to “pay” to remove the spikes! Of course this is a rather impractical idea for the real workplace, but serves to exemplify the current extent of innovative research being conducted on ways to encourage postural variation at work.

Other popular ideas are the use of so-called “active workstations”. These can be treadmill desks or static cycle desks where the office/computer worker walks or cycles while working with a computer and screen. The scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these is uncertain—there have only been a few studies, but it seems that they are unlikely to be effective when used in isolation without any accompanying management commitment to organisational, infrastructural and cultural changes that both change the physical work environment and affect worker’s behaviour.

Another interesting idea is the use of an electronic pad that measures pressure on the seat and so can “tell” when a person is seated or not. It is a wireless device that puts a colour coded “traffic light” message icon on a user’s computer screen that indicates the duration of inactive sitting—green indicates 0-30 minutes, amber indicates 31-60 minutes, and red indicates over 60 minutes. At that point, an auditory warning is given, prompting the user to move.

While a system like this is appealing and easy to use (and sell!), it has not yet been tested in real world conditions and has the disadvantage that it places all the onus on the individual to move position often, but with no incentive to comply, rather than placing some responsibility on an employer to facilitate organisational changes to reduce sitting at work.

In the UK and Australia there have been campaigns in workplaces to reduce sitting. Some campaigns have even been implemented in schools, with the aim of reducing sedentariness in classrooms and embedding an early understanding of the benefits of movement and postural variation.

Workplace campaigns such as “Stand Up” emphasise standing and more importantly movement, using catch phrases such as: “Stand-up, sit less, move more—and more often”. Any workplace campaign must be put in context. Not all workplaces have jobs that require prolonged sitting. Having a poster that exhorts you to “stand more” on the back of a toilet door is not enough. It is well known that using only an education or information approach to engender behavioural change will not create participation. Not all workplaces have jobs that allow sitting during work, so telling employees to reduce sitting is confusing.

It should be noted that interrupting prolonged sitting or standing postures, ie, encouraging variations in posture through increases in movement, is not the only change needed to improve health. Other lifestyle factors need to be addressed such as smoking and drinking, nutrition and stress.

Stand up and be counted

Last year, Employment Today’s sister magazine Safeguard surveyed readers on their use of standing desks. Nearly a third (31 percent) of the 204 respondents said they use a desk with a standing option.

Of those who answered yes, an impressive 65 percent said they spent 40 percent or more of their daily desk work standing, and a further 15 percent said they spent 30 percent of their desk-time standing.

A massive 92 percent of users said they would recommend a sit-stand desk, while the remaining eight percent were not sure. No one said they wouldn’t recommend a sit-stand desk.

When asked about the effects of standing desks on their productivity, two-thirds (66 percent) said they felt more productive, 32.5 percent saw no change, and just 1.5 percent said they felt less productive.

Sit-stand desk users noted improvements to back health, alertness and general wellness, and mentioned lower back pain, sciatica and neck and shoulder pain had been minimised.

One user said: “I’m surprised how hard it has been to convince the H&S and wellness people of their benefits. There is a perception out there that these desks are horrendously expensive. They’re not.”

This comment was reflected in the response of some of the 139 respondents who didn’t use a sit-stand desk. Forty-five percent of them liked the idea, but said they were too expensive or they couldn’t persuade the boss.

JANE PIERCE recently completed a Master of Philosophy degree in ergonomics at Massey University. She was supervised by Professor STEPHEN LEGG, Director of the Centre for Ergonomics, Occupational Safety and Health.

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