Human Resources

Can a different desk really make you more productive?

I am not a fitness fanatic. I’m not even a fitness moderate. I really like food, I get cranky at the thought of anything overly energetic, and only go to the gym when dragged there by my girlfriend. However, I am also very aware that sitting on my backside for seven to eight hours a day isn’t good for me. Of course, this isn’t news to anyone - we all know that we should be more active - but we also need to pay the bills.

This is where the trend for standing workstations comes in. Ranging from a cheap DIY or cardboard version to state-of-the-art treadmill desks and everything in between, standing desks will apparently help save us from countless unpleasant diseases, and can even delay death. How do I know this? Fellowes, the workplace supply people, commissioned some independent research into the subject in collaboration with Loudhouse.


Sitting down is bad

Not surprisingly, the research found that 94% of European workers sit at their desks for long periods of time without moving around. This is bad. According to the UK’s NHS, “it is thought excessive sitting slows the metabolism – which affects our ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and metabolise fat – and may cause weaker muscles and bones.” A 2010 report [PDF] found that while sedentary behaviour is most closely associated with weight gain and obesity, it can also be linked to all-cause mortality, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer and metabolic dysfunction. There’s a handy, if terrifying, infographic here that shows just how bad sitting can be for your health – sitting for six or more hours per day makes you up to 40% more likely to die within 15 years. Even if you exercise.

I spoke with a number of medical experts about the real dangers of spending too much time sitting down. Dr Adam Simon, Chief Medical Officer at Push Doctor, told me, “If your job involves sitting behind a desk, it’s difficult to maintain good posture. Having a poor posture can cause all sorts of problems that could have a huge impact on your overall health. Your posture affects your ability to do just about any physical activity. Over time, sitting at a desk will put too much pressure on your joints and cause connective tissue to wear away. This results in your bones rubbing against each other, which is not only uncomfortable but will also lead to conditions such as arthritis.” With businesses across Europe currently losing €73bn ($86bn) annually due to employee sickness, it seems sensible to promote a healthier lifestyle within the office. Desk aerobics and yoga in the boardroom aren’t exactly practical, but is a standing desk really the answer?

The trouble with a standing desk is that actually, you’re not really changing much – you’re still pretty much inactive for upwards of seven hours, and ok, you might avoid back problems (though not necessarily), but, as anyone who’s ever worked in retail will tell you (and I’m one of them, so you can trust me), even with the most comfortable of shoes, your feet are going to seriously ache by the end of the day. Jay Brewer, Professional Head of Clinical Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, warns that “Standing for long periods places constant load through the lumbar spine, which is usually alleviated by movement i.e. walking.”


A solution? The LOTUS Sit-Stand Workstation

So, if sitting all day is bad, but standing all day isn’t really an option either, then maybe the best of both worlds? There are a number of sit-stand desks available – either desks that have adjustable height, or desk-top contraptions that allow you to raise and lower your screen and keyboard, and Fellowes, the workplace products people, were kind enough to lend me the latest the LOTUS Sit-Stand Workstation.

Recently announced as the winner of the bronze level award from the Industrial Designers Society of America in the office and productivity category, the LOTUS Sit-Stand Workstation is a pretty sturdy piece of kit. It comes fully-assembled so no faffing about, (though it is very heavy so pay attention to the picture instructions that have two people lifting it), and sits on top of your existing desk with space for monitor, keyboard and mouse.

So how does it work? There’s a lift-up handle on either side of the station that releases the mechanism to allow you to lift the station. The same handles will also lower it. Fellowes’ patent-pending Smooth Lift Technology does what it says on the tin (adjusts the tension so that raising and lowering is easy regardless of the weight on the station), and there are 22 different height settings and 17” of vertical adjustment so you can find the perfect position. It features cord management and a device charging slot that allows movement of the station without having to unplug everything. The workstation is BIFMA Tested and holds up to 35 lbs. (and the instructions remind you “not to place children, small animals or even large animals” on it). Fellowes even provide Velcro stickies to fix your monitor to the stand.

The verdict? In short, it’s good, but for me, there’s a problem. To be fair, it’s not a problem specific to the LOTUS Sit-Stand Workstation, but to all desktop sit-stand options. But first, let’s focus on the positives:

  • It requires no assembly – just two people to lift it on to the desk
  • It looks smart and feels sturdy – I’m not worried about the whole thing crashing down around me
  • The lift/lower mechanism is smooth and easy to operate – takes a matter of seconds
  • The cable tidy is great – wandering cables are a pet hate of mine
  • The device charging slot likewise – my mobile leans happily against the stand, always in my eyeline and can be charged as necessary

So what’s the problem? There is, in my opinion, a fundamental flaw in (most) desktop workstations – they don’t offer any support to the elbows. In the instructions, the LOTUS Sit-Stand Workstation recommends 45 minutes seated, 15 minutes standing. And while that is probably too short a time for most people to have a problem – unfortunately I do have dodgy shoulders, and 15 minutes standing with no elbow support becomes painful. Give me something to support by elbows, and I’ll be happy.

In short: It does what it aims to, and does it well, but I need elbow support.

If you like the idea but want to try it out before you commit, Fellowes offer a Try Before You Buy scheme for its Sit-Stand Workstations. You can find more information here.


What do the experts say?

“Evidence shows that standing throughout the day has a positive effect on the regulation of glucose and the risk of developing weight related complications such as diabetes and heart disease,” says Brewer. He suggests that standing after lunch is probably most beneficial as “standing for 90 minutes after each meal will have the biggest impact.” However, those who aren’t used to standing for long periods should start slowly.

Of course, standing up for a couple of hours during the day might be better than spending the whole day sat down, but we don’t know for sure. As Dr Simon says, “Many people are taking up the radical solution of standing desks but standing for a full day can make you feel equally as achy.  Workers who stand up every now and then throughout the day have been shown to suffer fewer back problems, RSIs and work-related injuries. There's also evidence to suggest that the they're better able to maintain a steady weight. So there may be evidence to support that the sit-stand desks may be better than a standing desk or traditional work station but more research would need to be conducted. There's certainly no need to spend all day standing, it's good have some time out of your seat.”


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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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