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Are adjustable, sit-stand desks all they’re cracked up to be?

When you consider that having staff crouched at their desks, hunched over their monitors or slumping in their seats is not only bad for their health and productivity but can infect the mood of the entire office, it’s hard not to be surprised by the rise and rise of the adjustable desk.

Bearing in mind that sitting has been labelled the ‘new smoking’, it’s hard not to see why professionals want us to sit less and move more, but do standing desks make any real difference to the bottom line?

University of Pittsburgh researcher Dr April Chambers has studied a wide range of research on the benefits of sit-stand desks. The evidence is overwhelming that sit-stand desks get employees to sit less and stand more, with the most substantial improvements in behaviour and discomfort. But weight loss isn’t one of them.

“There are health benefits to using sit-stand desks, such as a small decrease in blood pressure or low back pain relief, but people simply are not yet burning enough calories to lose weight with these devices,” Chambers said.

While not a silver bullet for obesity, sit-stand desks do get employees moving more and movement, the research shows, triggers brain areas that deal with thought, creativity, and attention – it’s why we get such good ideas and insights when we go for a walk.

While not a panacea on their own, sit-stand desks are one key element in an office ecosystem designed to facilitate movement.

Lauren Friedrich, a 2016 graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD), says that as “counter-productive as it may sound to disengage from your work, your employees will be more productive if they have the freedom to move throughout the day.

“Giving your employees the freedom to choose where and how they work (where they want to read an article, where they want to have a meeting, where they want to write down an idea, and where they take a phone call) will give them the feeling that they are in control of their workday, and their body,” says Friedrich.

She says that sit-stand desks are great, but it is just as essential to get employees to shift positions while they work. “If you do bring in some standing desks, make sure your employees are not standing all day. If just starting, they should stand for short periods, then sit. If already accustomed to standing, they can stand for longer, but should still take breaks to sit or walk around”.

Here are some ideas on how to get more out of adjustable desks:

1. Don’t let employees stand for too long. 

They should ideally alternate between standing and sitting. Research conducted in the UK, US and Australia by Public Health England suggests that employees should stand for a minimum of two hours a day and a maximum of four hours (two hours maximum when they first start using the sit-stand desk).

The research authors found that those who “sit most are more than twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease and have a 13 per cent and 17 per cent increased risk of cancer incidence and mortality respectively”.

2. Make sure the desks are adjusted for the individual.

Shape Commercial recently provided a client with sit-stand desks that were blue-tooth enabled. When an employee plugged into a sit-stand desk in the hot-desking area, the desk automatically adjusted to the employee’s preferences. This kind of technology can be applied to ensure each person has their desk and chair at the proper height for their needs.

Ensure elbows are no less than a 90-degree angle and the screen at, or slightly below, eye level. Ask an expert to help you set up adjustable desks to the correct desk and monitor height.

3. Use anti-fatigue mats.

Designed to reduce fatigue from standing for long periods on a hard floor, anti-fatigue mats are essential in the sit-stand desk-based office.

A study by England’s Loughborough University reveals that standing for 90 minutes causes discomfort in the feet, legs, and back and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.

Professors George Havenith and Lucy Dorman found significant benefits from using an anti-fatigue mat with your adjustable desk.

While still-stand desks bring considerable benefits in health, productivity and creativity to the office environment, they need to be used properly. They are best put to use in consultation with a workplace ergonomic expert.