I’ve been digging deep into the research on adjustable height desks. Writers/journalists, PR representatives, and even some researchers are claiming that sit-stand desks make us more productive. They don’t. I debunked the claim in a Fast Company piece called The Truth About Standing Desks and Productivity.
Adjustable height desks are workstations that allow you to change your position from sitting to standing at will. Sometimes it’s a platform that holds a computer setup with some levers that let the worker easily raise or lower the workstation, allowing the employee to sit or stand to work. Sometimes the whole desk can raise and lower, usually with an electrical component. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a tall desk with a tall chair, situated at the right height so that the employee can still work easily when standing at her computer.
Even though there are no direct productivity benefits of using sit-stand desks, they can be beneficial for a few health reasons. Perceived pain and discomfort has been shown to decrease for employees who use sit-stand desks (Karakolis & Callaghan, 2014).
Additionally, people like them, which is no small point. Enjoying our space makes us feel happy, and positive feelings can increase motivation (Fishbach et al. 2014).
If a desk can make us happier and alleviate pain or ward off future pain, it’s possible it could indirectly affect productivity over the long term. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any solid research on the indirect productivity benefits of sit-stand desks, and there are no long-term studies on them yet either.
How Often Do We Need to Move?
I did find a great review of the literature on sit-stand desks (Shrestha et al. 2016) that includes an overview of the recommended amount of time someone needs to sit versus stand to get any of the benefits of using the desk. It is a delicate balance. Sitting for extended periods of time without adjusting posture can be painful and possibly detrimental to health, but standing for prolonged stretches can also cause health problems. I’ve reformatted the quote to use bullet points to draw attention to each recommendation.
“Possibly because of the variation in results across studies, recommendations for reducing sitting at work vary.
- One recommendation says prolonged sitting should be limited to no more than two hours over an eight-hour workday (Commissaris 2007; ISO 11226:2000).
- Another recommends that a 30-minute period of moderate intensity physical activity, or its equivalent, should be incorporated into an eight-hour workday (Commissaris 2007),
- and a third one recommends a five-minute exercise break, such as walking, for every 40 to 50 minutes of sitting (CCOHS 2010).
- In 2015, an international group of experts recommended that desk based employees should aim towards accumulating two hours per day of standing and light activity (light walking) during working hours, eventually progressing to a total accumulation of four hours per day. To achieve this, they recommended to break up sitting time with standing work with the use of sit-stand desks, or by taking short active standing breaks (Buckley 2015).
While all these guidelines stress the evidence of the adverse effects of sitting on health, there is little evidence that different interventions that aim to reduce sitting can achieve any of these recommendations” (Shrestha et al. 2016; bullets and bold mine).
Fishbach, A., Hsee, C., and Shen, L. (2014) ,”Uncertainty Increases Motivation”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 42, eds. June Cotte and Stacy Wood, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research: 681-682.
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.
Shrestha, N., Kukkonen-Harjula, K. T., Verbeek, J. H., Iyaz, S., Hermans, & V., Bhaumik S. (2016). “Workplace interventions for reducing sitting time at work,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016 (3). DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD010912.pub3. Published March 17, 2016. Retrieved July 8, 2016 from http://www.cochrane.org/CD010912/OCCHEALTH_workplace-interventions-reducing-sitting-time-work.
Photo from flickr.com/photos/henkbekker, CC. Original in color.