Posted: Thu 3rd Oct 2019
_Matthew Reed, co-founder of Equipsme, looks at the benefits and downsides of sit/down desks.
This article is part of the Enterprise Nation Business Health Hub._
Let's get things straight: sitting is not the new smoking, whatever you may have read to the contrary.
That said, sitting for more than eight hours a day for prolonged periods does raise the risk of premature death and certain chronic health conditions by up to 20% (American Journal of Public Health).
Sitting might be bad, but smoking is worse (well, duh). The same study quoted above found that smoking ups yout chance of dropping dead early by 180%. So, best to cut out the fags before cutting time spent on your arse. And, presumably, never, ever smoke sitting down.
Of course, if you're an employer, you don't have to worry about staff smoking at their desks, because smoking in offices (or any enclosed space) became illegal in 2007. But, in light of the sobering stats on sitting down, many are taking a dim view of sitting at desks now too.
You could say standing is the new sitting, given the booming popularity of desks that can be adjusted for sitting or standing at in the UK. If you're an employer and haven't already, you might soon be asked by staff to provide sit/stand desks. Before you answer them, read this…
Do they really help with back problems?
A while back, an apocryphal tale was doing the rounds that office workers who smoke are less prone to back pain as they spend less time at their desks by getting up for a puff every so often. This is rubbish. Studies actually suggest that smoking raises the risk of back pain.
But the myth is built on a grain of truth: less time sitting means less likelihood of back pain. Workers who alternated between sitting and standing at adjustable desks at half hour intervals reported a 31.8% reduction in back pain in a 2014 study. A 2011 study revealed a 54% reduction in upper back and neck pain among workers who sat 66 fewer minutes a day.
Will sit/stand desks improve staff productivity?
Don't just look at sit/stand desks from your staff's perspective. You should also consider what your business could gain from having a less sedentary workforce. In a 2018 study published in the British Medical Journal [BMJ], NHS workers who used sit/stand desks reported reduced tiredness and boosted productivity versus more sedentary colleagues.
Do they help people lose weight?
A study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health in 2016 found that standing at a desk for three hours instead of sitting on your backside burns an extra 24 calories. That's a carrot. Walking for just half an hour during your lunchbreak burns 100 calories a day. That's a chocolate digestive and a bit. So, not much.
Do they have any other health benefits?
You might be better off encouraging staff to go for a walk during their lunch break (or hiding the biscuit tin) if you want a leaner workforce, but there are other gains to be had from sit/stand desks. The more you sit, the more likely it is you'll get type 2 diabetes or heart disease in later life, so there's one obvious benefit from standing more.
That's not all. The BMJ study quoted above also revealed that workers who used sit/stand desks were less likely to report job-related fatigue and anxiety and a higher overall quality of life. So, they can boost mental health. And better mental health is linked to better overall physical health (and vice versa).
Are there any health risks?
You might want to sit down for this one. Contrary to the above point, there's some evidence to suggest that sit/stand desks can lead to back and other muscoskeletal problems. In a 2018 study of 40 adults with no previous back issues, 16 (40%) reported lower back pain after standing at a sit/stand desk for two hours (University of Waterloo).
There's a but: like any physical activity, it's best to start slowly; people shouldn't go straight from sitting down all day to standing for prolonged periods. Posture is crucial. The University of Waterloo study found that people with less standing tolerance were more likely to curve their back when standing. A mix of sitting and standing is advised.
If a member of staff asks for a sit/stand desk am I legally obliged to provide one?
No. But if a member of your staff complains of a bad back that has a substantial, adverse and long-term effect on daily activities - which, let's face it, most back pain does - you are legally required to make reasonable adjustments to the workplace to avoid exacerbating their condition. The key test, then, is what is reasonable.
If you're running a multinational that turns over millions a year, it would be easy to be argue that a sit/stand desk is a reasonable request. Indeed, Procter & Gamble, Google and others have invested in the technology. If you're a small business with limited funds and/or space, it might not be reasonable. But, of course, that doesn't absolve you of responsibility.
What else does the law say?
You have a legal duty to keep your staff safe at work and consult with them on issues that could affect their health and wellbeing. The Health & Safety Executive recommends that employers discuss with workers about how to improve their wellbeing at work. That means sit/stand desks could well come up in conversation soon.
How much would all this going to cost me?
Prices vary from less than £100 to more than £1,000. Models range from desks that can be raised and lowered with electric motors and ones fitted with treadmills to keep staff active during the day to simple platforms that can be placed on a standard desk.
But we might be asking the wrong question. With mounting evidence that sit/stand desks can result in happier, healthier and more productive staff, which in turn are more likely to stay at a job longer, maybe you should be asking how much not providing sit/stand desks is going to cost you?
Matthew Reed is co-founder and managing director of Equipsme. Surprisingly simple health insurance for business.
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