Sitting at a computer desk may look like a soft option compared to working in a factory or on a building site. But a growing body of research suggests it can be downright dangerous.
Information workers may not have to deal with obvious hazards such as falling bricks, heavy machinery or molten metal, but sedentary work has been implicated in many health issues, including weight gain, back pains, piles, fading eyesight and cardiovascular disease.
One of the best ways to prevent these problems is an office set-up for switching between a sitting and standing position.
The first computers and PC screens from the 1970s were so bulky and heavy that they inevitably ended on our office desks. Even with the development of lighter and more user-friendly devices this bad habit remained. We often accept this uncritically and without considering better options…
If you sit at an office desk virtually every day for ten years or more, you will more than likely start to experience the unpleasant consequences of such one-sided physical stress. You may go to the gym, buy an ergonomic office chair or better PC screen, but the problem of maintaining a stiff body position while working would not be solved.
Fortunately, standing while working offers several benefits:
- While standing, you move more often, have a higher expenditure of energy and better calorie combustion for lowering excess weight. The movement is natural and pleasant, you may walk around the room and stretch yourself (or swing to the background music).
- You use more muscles than in a regular sitting position which tends to strain your nape and neck sections. Standing distributes the stress and moves it around by changing posture. You would be less stiff relaxing your nape and eyes and moving them more often too.
- Thinking is easier and concentration lasts longer. Many people choose a standing position because it is better for their thinking and creative work with deeper and longer concentration spans. Great thinkers often preferred standing over sitting at their desk: Hemingway, Churchill, da Vinci, Napoleon, Goethe, Nabokov and Jefferson among many others.
- Free movement leads to inspiration. When you cannot catch the right idea or untangle a problem, it doesn’t really help to sit and stare at your PC screen. Much better to leave your desk, pour yourself a cup of tea and look out of the window to collect your thoughts. Your quick action radius expands from your desk to the whole room, books and folders are suddenly within reach and inspiration can come more easily.
- Risks are lower than with immobile standing. While long standing by the production line would bring similar health hazards as stiff sitting, standing at your office desk allows movement and small breaks, preventing many problems.
Scientific papers on safety and ergonomics in the workplace usually recommend regularly switching between rightly balanced work positions as needed. In other words, the ideal office should allow us to work both in a sitting and standing position and to switch these as easily as possible. These are the options:
- Two separate desks for sitting and standing (takes more space)
- Single desk with adjustable height (great but expensive)
- Single standing desk + elevated chair (optimal solution)
Before your start shopping and redesigning your office space, try it first. Invent some temporary set-up, such as my laptop on the box attached to two kitchen chairs:
Temporary set-up for my experiments…
…and two compact and retractable standing desks for our laptops.
Although I have a lot of experience with this unconventional way of work and have studied the subject a great deal, I am not competent enough to give professional advice on the matter. Everyone is different, so I can only recommend you to consult with your own physiotherapist or other expert about your change of work habits. Then you can make your own responsible decision, whether or not and to which extent you can work while standing.
The following summarizes my own experience and information from various sources.
Most warnings that I have hit upon were related to standing while working in general, i.e. in production plants, where the workers often stand on one spot without moving all day long. The main risks were sole pains, sweating feet, varices, muscle fatigue, neck and shoulder stiffness, etc. I have not experienced any of these symptoms myself, but they may surely occur. Obviously, as always, one should be careful and not push it too far.
Work in a standing position has also numerous beneficial effects, some of which I have already presented above. I might add that from my own experience, I got rid of piles within a month. It was one of my reasons to switch in the first place.
It takes several days or even weeks to get used to standing. You may experience some temporary problems such as giddiness, minor pains in the back, legs or feet. Your body has to accommodate to a new condition and needs time. You can start with half hour a day to go through emails, writing or editing stuff, just to adjust to it.
Longer standing is definitely not suitable for pregnant women, people with severe obesity or other physical difficulties that would complicate standing.
Tips on Ergonomics
- Desk height – optimal board height is derived from the level of bent elbow or slightly more above (in my case approx. 111 cm).
- Desk board size – I need at least 60×50 cm board size to work on my laptop, although larger is always better.
- Variability – our small retractable desks can be set between 105 and 120 cm board height, which is an advantage in comparison to larger desks with fixed height.
- Stability – the desk should be stable enough to carry some weight, so that you can lean on to it
- Mat – standing on a hard or cold floor should be always avoided by using an isolating mat, but not too thick and soft.
- Foot prop – there should be some small prop or step under the table to rest one foot at a time.
- Footwear – has to support plantar arch and respect foot shape, be firm enough but not pinch, allowing for toe movements.
- Chair – combined set-ups employ long bar stools with feet support (my chair has a seat at 80 cm).
- PC screen – for regular standing work the upper margin of the screen should be at least at your eye level to keep the neck naturally straightened.
- Treadmill – some set-ups include a treadmill for a steady slow walking on a spot (some call it walkstation); I have not tried it myself, but I believe it might be useful.
- Suppliers – there are many sellers such as Ergostore, Bizrate or old-fashioned Standup Desks, products like Milk or GeekDesk, or you can design it yourself and have it made by your local carpenter.
Interesting Links and Resources
- Working While Standing – structured basic info about standing at work
- Working in a Standing Position – general advice on standing work and it’s hazards
- Stand Up While You Read This! – health consequences and risks of longtime sedentary work in comparison to standing
- Standing versus Sitting – brief comparison blogpost by 37signals
- How I Made a Standing Workstation For $19.99 – cheap and ugly solution
- Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting – abstract of a study on serious health hazards of sedentary work
- The Men Who Stare at Screens – why regular exercise does not compensate for hours of sitting
- Stand Up Australia (PDF) – study about health and behavioral consequences of the sedentary work with recommendations for standing
- Productivity and Employee Health (PDF) – information about increased work productivity and lower need for breaks with standing work
- Sitting at Your Desk Can Kill You – annotation of the article about the study covering health hazards of the sedentary work
- Hanselminutes – video from a quick visit to Fog Creek Software, where standing work is widely supported
- My Woffice – short video of the walkstation in action
Where do You Stand?
Have your ever tried standing work yourself? If so, how was it?
Do you have a standing post at your office?
Feel free to share your thoughts and pictures. While standing, of course.Tweet