Is sitting bad for business?

Employers could see significant cost savings by getting employees out of their chairs

"Sitting is killing you" has been one of the foremost battle cries of an exploding number of health professionals, journalists, ergonomists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, entrepreneurs and concerned citizens.

Concerns were first raised in a 1953 British study that found bus conductors who spent their days standing had a risk of heart attack one-half that of bus drivers who spent their shifts sitting down.

The results confirmed what common sense could have revealed a lot sooner, had we bothered to compare the lifestyles of our ancestors with our own after the onset of the information age and the advent of the service economy. We went from hunting, gathering, farming and, subsequently, manufacturing occupations — all of which required considerable physical exertion — to predominantly sedentary office jobs.

Still, it wasn’t until the 1990s that widespread, mainstream interest in curbing occupational sitting picked up, largely due to the novel innovations that began appearing around this time in the way of standing desks, and the campaigning efforts of their proprietors.

Research has also been heating up into understanding the business implications of having a workforce that sits for up to 10 hours per day, and whether a competitive advantage might be realized by shrinking that figure.

After all, absenteeism due to illness, health insurance premiums and other disruptions to productivity cost employers millions of dollars annually, and if a standing desk improves employees’ health and wellness, it should also lead to savings and bolster profits.

Current research has focused primarily on the ROI of conventional wellness programs (such as gyms, physiotherapy, massages and eateries). Aggressive estimates indicate that for every dollar spent on these, $3.50 will be returned before the end of year three, while more conservative estimates call for $1.50 in returns, according to the 2013 article "Investing in Company Wellness Programs: Does it Make Financial Sense?" in the Journal of Health Management.

A similar conclusion was reached by Australia’s Victorian Health Promotion Foundation in 2012, which called for further research to be conducted. Its research supported the postulation that chronic occupational sitting is a significant hidden cost long overlooked by human resources professionals, while also an opportunity to help companies attract and retain top talent.

If, historically, standing desks and treadmill desks were seen as requiring a "prescription" from either an occupational therapist or a chiropractor, they are now increasingly seen as a practical solution to a debilitating mainstream problem — an encouraging trend for managers, public health advocates and standing desk manufacturers.

Overwhelmingly, the winner in the rise of the standing desk has been the consumer, benefiting from broader product options and greater affordability. Moreover, several inexpensive, do-it-yourself standing desk concepts, complete with instructions, have been popularized online, further contributing to growing adoption.

Due to the proliferation of various standing desk concepts, it is more important than ever to be informed and adhere to certain common-sense rules that should ensure a safe and positive experience.

Safety first

A positive standing desk experience starts with trusting your workstation. This means any desk that wobbles, shakes, rattles, overheats, squeaks or has exposed or loose wiring should be ruled out. At a minimum, a standing desk should be sturdy and quiet, and be able to handle more weight than the average user would place on it.

Safety extends to a person having the right mindset, tools and realistic expectations — especially when she is first starting out with a standing desk. Most users report the first week of using a standing desk can be mildly challenging as the body and mind become accustomed to standing up and thinking on one’s feet.

Although sitting breaks are always encouraged and should be taken as needed, this is doubly important during the crucial initial adjustment period.

Of equal importance from day one is proper foot support, which can be achieved by either wearing comfortable footwear or standing on an anti-fatigue mat. Both options make users feel more comfortable, postpone the onset of muscle fatigue and maintain proper joint health.

Adjustability is key

No two people are identical and a standing desk must be able to conform to the height and proportions of its user. This also applies to any monitor mounts and keyboard trays the standing desk is outfitted with.

Proper setup and adjustment are crucial in order to maintain a neutral back, elbows, wrists and neck while in use, to alleviate the risk of any strain and discomfort to the user. One of the main perks of using a standing desk is the instant elimination of slouching, but the well-being of all other joints should be considered as well.

For many, the addition of a walking treadmill to a standing desk happens after one to two years, by which time the user may feel he has conquered the standing desk and is ready for another challenge. Although walking while working does pose an additional challenge, it offers among its rewards increased caloric expenditure and enhanced brain activity.

Guy Viner is founder and CEO of Viner Standing Desks in Vaughan, Ont. For more information, visit, email [email protected] or call (844) CAN-DESK.

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