In recent times much has been written about stand up desks with ‘sitting’ seen to be the new ‘smoking’ in terms of health risk.

Studies have shown that if you exercise for an hour a day, but sit for the remainder, that single hour doesn’t necessarily counterbalance the eight hours of sitting; in much the same way that running for an hour doesn’t negate a cigarette smoked.

Research shows that extended sitting and a sedentary lifestyle can result in health issues including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Studies also seem to indicate that whilst converting to standing desks can reduce musculoskeletal stress, like any other risk mitigation they can also bring about additional risks.

The first, and most obvious risk in converting to stand up desks is the risk of changing to a new position too quickly, without the necessary training or adjustment. This could bring about other strains or musculoskeletal stresses. In this respect, workers should gradually build-up standing time over a period and not try to stand for a full day.

The second concern relates to commitment over time – whilst standing desks provide a way for workers to vary their posture and switch between sitting and standing, they have to actually be used to be of any benefit, with some studies suggesting that people start out with good intentions when using a stand up desk but then default back to sitting once the novelty wears off.

Thirdly, remaining for long periods in any one posture is unhealthy, and this also applies to standing to work for long periods. It is more tiring to stand meaning people can fall into poor posture through fatigue and increase their risk of new injuries. Standing to work requires approximately 20% more energy than sitting and whilst this is generally perceived as a positive, it may not suit all people, especially those with pre-existing musculoskeletal conditions.

Another factor in relation to standing is the additional stress on legs and feet. Standing can increase the risk of varicose veins, which should be assessed for any individual converting to a standing desk. In addition, to minimise fatigue, the surface the worker stands on needs to be correct, with anti-fatigue mats and anti-fatigue footwear considered.

Ergonomic considerations are also important. For example, the performance of many fine motor skills, such as the use of a mouse or other such office equipment, may be less effective when people stand rather than sit. Correct, individualised, ergonomically-sound set up of new standing workstations is critical to manage this.

Finally, studies have shown that standing in itself is insufficient; it is movement and regular change of posture that is important to get blood circulation through the muscles and to minimise the risk of musculoskeletal injury.

These factors would suggest that like any other risk, the controls around sitting and sedentary work are not necessarily obvious and that the best solution would be to assess the risks, in consultation with affected workers, and implement the necessary controls. This would mean that rather than simply buying stand up desks and offering them to workers, an ergonomic risk assessment should be undertaken and controls implemented to reduce the risk, rather than simply provide a one size fits all approach that may introduce new risks.

Please contact QRMC for more information or for specialised assistance with workplace ergonomic assessments.