Standing Desks - are they a magic pill?

Written by Terry Wong


A week doesn’t go by without someone asking for our opinion on the merits of standing desks (usually it’s a safety professional with headaches created by employees who denounce their chair because they’ve heard that “sitting is the new smoking”).

Here is our common sense review on the issue of sitting and standing at work … based on the evidence so far.

Do we sit too much? Definitely.

Do we sit too much at work? Probably – especially if you work in an office.

Are standing desks the solution? Yes and No.

Relax, it’s just a tool

There is plenty of research on the perils of sitting (and the very occasional study to the contrary).

Obviously using a standing desk will reduce total sitting time. However, there is also plenty of research saying that prolonged standing is also a health hazard. Simply standing up is not the answer. [There are links below to lots of research if you want to go to the source.]

It is still early days to be making definitive judgements based on peer-reviewed randomised controlled studies, but we know enough to be able to form a considered opinion.

At Move 4 Life we argue the importance of moving better (ie. with less ache, strain and pain) and moving more. Clearly standing desks are a tool that can help with moving more. Just like your mouse, keyboard and iPad are good tools if used well.

The effectiveness of a standing desk is largely influenced by how it is used. The old saying that “a good craftsman never blames his tools” rings a bell here.

Simply providing employees with a standing desk does not mean they will use this “tool” to their benefit. If all they do is alternate between sitting and standing they may well be no better off.

Why do so many standing desks not get used to their potential?

Because our habit to sit is strong. Very strong.

Standing Desk ImageOver the decades (probably since the industrial revolution), it has become a societal norm to sit. We sit while we wait (name your environment … doctor’s surgery, the train, plane and automobile), we sit in meetings, we sit at lunch … and it has become polite to sit when socialising (just try standing when invited for a cup of tea with your neighbour!).

Simply providing the “tool” is not enough. People need help to overcome their sitting tendencies. And it’s not just at work (although we know that’s where most of the sitting happens). People need to become aware of their unconscious habits and make the incredible shift in their mindset to move more (not just stand at work) … and they need help with that.

Practical tips

Here is my list of things you could do if you want your people to move more (not just stand at work):

1. Start with some numbers

  • Getting a read on where you are at prior to any intervention is good research protocol. Measure the amount of time people are sitting, where they are sitting, the impact on how they feel, the impact on their productivity, how engaged they are in participating in an initiative to address it ... among many others you can measure.
  • To calculate your sitting hours, simply do this Sitting Calculator.
  • move survey sedentary index 200x55For a more comprehensive measure of the likely sedentary nature of your life, try our MOVE Survey. You could administer this across your whole workplace and get a comprehensive snapshot of the issue.
  • Harness the growing popularity of wearables. Tapping into a device that monitors how much you move has been found to influence behaviour. Note: there are some devices that do the movement monitoring and alerting better than others.

2. Trial standing desks

  • Before you fire up the capex process, trial a standing desk for yourself. Many companies are dipping their toe in the water (or someone a little more cynical would say strategically appeasing the masses) by using a standing desk in a hot desk capacity. That way you can get a read on how it’s used and who it’s used by.
  • If the budget allows, I would suggest always going for an electric (or manual wind up) desk – one that actually looks like a conventional desk. Alternatively, there are more and more on-top-of-your-desk pop up solutions.
  • Our friends at Welnis Labs can help you with this.

3. Look beyond desks

Whilst desks are an obvious option in an office environment … have a look around and see how mover-friendly your workplace is. Can you access the fire stairs? Do you have standing options (ie. high bench-space) in the lunchroom? Do you have standing options in meeting rooms? All these seemingly little things can support your people to move more – and maximise the return on investment of any new standing furniture.

4. Run an awareness campaign

This is quite often the missing ingredient for many standing desk rollouts. As a social group, workplaces need to have open discussions and make collaborative decisions on how they want to operate within the work group. Employees need to be aware of how big a problem it is and share strategies on how to deal with it. This is best done face-to-face and in their workgroups. The MOVE Survey results will help.

5. Provide a drip-feed of ongoing support

Because we are trying to unhinge people’s sitting habits, it’s going to take some time. Drip-fed tips and tricks (as opposed to in-your-face prompters) over an extended period works best. Also look at encouraging people to move more holistically – at work, at home and whilst in play.

6. Re-measure and adjust your course

After doing all the above, the worst thing you can do is sit back and rest on your laurels. Re-measure the things you did at the start and adjust your campaign accordingly.

7. Persevere

All said and done, you are up against the great sitting beast. You know the saying … “it might not happen overnight, but it will happen”. Whenever you think all is lost and people are slouching in their chairs around you, just keep on going with the belief that if you help just 1 person your efforts are worthwhile

8. Consider MOVE Training

program officeOur [office] program helps people to “move more” and to “move better” and comes with 26 weeks of Email reminders with hints, tips & tricks to help cement the creation of new habits and a whole range of workplace materials to bring this sort of initiative to life.

Declaration: I wrote this article whilst standing (at my electric standing desk) with my fitbit monitoring my every move … at least you know I practice what I preach!

More reading

Here are some useful links if you are interested in more reading:

How to reduce sitting time? A review of behaviour change strategies used in sedentary behaviour reduction interventions among adults.

Sitting Ducks – Sedentary Behaviour and its Health Risks

The toxic triangle: is standing any better than sitting?

Sitting is the new smoking

The Price We Pay for Sitting Too Much

Those with a desk job, please stand up

The sedentary office: a growing case for change towards better health and productivity.

Associations of sitting behaviours with all-cause mortality over a 16-year follow-up: the Whitehall II study

About the Author

Terry Wong

Terry Wong

Terry Wong is General Manager of Move 4 Life, the benchmark in preventing sprain and strain injuries and future-proofing an ageing workforce. Move 4 Life helps companies send employees home to their families safely each day.

A Physiotherapist by-trade, Terry has spent the last 14 years in workplace rehabilitation, occupational health, injury-prevention and training. He has held a position as Chair of the Occupational Health Group of the Australian Physiotherapy Association and is widely published on these subjects.

You can find Terry’s LinkedIn profile here.

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