Sitting for extended periods of time is bad for our overall health, our muscles, and our spines. But is it also bad for productivity? What happens when a computer worker decides to frequently change position? Does productivity decrease when we try to work while standing?
I came across a great article recently (Karakolis and Callaghan 2014) that compiled the results from eight studies that evaluated whether sit-stand desks have an effect on productivity. It’s easy and logical to imagine that productivity might decrease if knowledge workers are constantly stopping their flow to adjust their desks and change position. It’s just as logical, however, to assume that sit-stand desks help to reduce pain and the fatigue of sitting, and that they cause productivity to increase because a worker can keep at it longer without the discomfort that may have made them stop working prematurely.
What is a Sit-Stand Desk?
Height adjustable workstations (of which sit-stand desks are one variety) let workers do their jobs either while sitting or standing. They are designed so that the worker can change position quickly and at his or her will. These workstations are gaining popularity among knowledge workers, although they can be used in manual labor settings, too. The research evaluated by Karakolis and Callaghan all had office workers as their subjects.
A reliable sit-stand desk costs anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
The Lead-Up to the Sit-Stand Lifestyle
The current notion of sit-stand work started around 1998, according to Karakolis and Callaghan, referencing Karlqvist (1998). Interestingly, it came on the heels of a lot of talk about the benefits of micro-breaks, or why taking short frequent breaks from one’s computer throughout the day was crucial to a computer worker’s health and productivity.
Micro-breaks were thought to help with a number of problems. Staring at a computer screen for too long, for example, tires and dries out the eyes. Repetitive stress injuries and carpal tunnel’s syndrome can also be caused by not taking breaks and getting stuck working in the same physical position for long stretches of time. The idea that prolonged sitting could be bad for one’s overall health, beyond simply causing swelling in the feet and legs or restricted blood flow, was just getting underway.
Working from a standing position every so often, researchers slowly discovered, could prevent a lot of these issues. When standing, computer workers typically change their wrist position, which prevents many of repetitive stress injuries from prolonged typing and mousing. Workers who sometimes stand to work experience less lower back pain. Swelling in the legs and feet also goes down.
Sit-Stand Desks and Productivity
But does changing position throughout the day affect productivity?
Karakolis and Callaghan found eight studies that met all their criteria and that measured productivity in some way. Of those eight studies, none of them found sit-stand desks reduced productivity. However, only three studies saw a statistically significant increase in productivity, and four studies showed no effect. One study reported mixed results.
So if sit-stand desks might improve productivity, is there an ideal routine of when to sit or stand and for how long?
In the end, the researchers couldn’t find anything definitive about a magic number, but they did find that a 1:1 ratio of sitting and standing was counter-productive. People needed to sit more and stand less. Studies that had a 1:2 or 1:3 ratio had better results.
What Can You Do?
Sit-stand desks do benefit workers by reducing pain and getting blood flowing to the lower extremities more often than when they sit for prolonged periods of time. But when to stand to work and for how long seems to be a matter of personal preference at the moment, though signs point to making the standing time less than half of the total day.
Importantly, too, there must be follow-through. Karakolis and Callaghan note that a few studies have shown that workers don’t stand as much or quit standing altogether after they’ve had their sit-stand workstations for six months to a year.
Karakolis, T. and Callaghan, J. P. (2014). The Impact of sit-stand office workstations on worker discomfort and productivity: A review. Applied Ergonomics 45 : 799-806.
Karlqvist, L., (1998). A process for the development, specification and evaluation of VDU work tables. Applied Ergonomics 29 (6), 423-432.