Do Alternative Workstations Work at Work?

Prolonged sitting is a risk factor for many illnesses and premature death.

Deborah Hersman is president and CEO of the National Safety Council.

​Over the past century, white-collar occupations, like accounting, nursing and computer services, have increased 50% while physically demanding occupations like agriculture, mining and manufacturing decreased by the same percentage.[1]  As more and more workers moved indoors to more sedentary work, we've seen a rise in new types of workplace injuries, particularly ergonomic ones.

While ergonomic injuries were present in physically demanding occupations, when it comes to repetitive tasks, our bodies can incur strain over time by engaging in the same movement over and over even if it doesn't require heavy effort. For example, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, illnesses like carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) are a common and costly disease among working-aged adults, a leading cause of work-related disability and have affected 3-6% of workers. 

Additionally, sitting for long periods of time is also hazardous to your health. In fact, it can be deadly. Studies have shown that prolonged sitting is a risk factor for obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and is responsible for 7% of premature deaths, according to an Ergonomics In Design study.[2]  Even if you work out every day, sitting behind a desk all day still puts you at risk for health problems.  It's no wonder that office workers are aching for a new kind of workstation. 

The New Workstation

To get workers moving and counter the repetitive motions of typing or holding a phone, alternative work stations like sit-to-stand, treadmill and cycling desks have gained in popularity. Although it is too early to determine whether these alternative work stations will substantially decrease ergonomic risks over time, they should be introduced into the workplace with care.

Treadmill desks and cycling desks, for example, pose the same problem as driving distracted: Our brains cannot do two things at once. The same goes for the burden we put on our brain when we move and try to do finite tasks at the same time.  In the case of treadmill desks, our reaction time to a task goes up because we are moving, but the accuracy by which we do those tasks goes down. The sit-to-stand desk also poses a dilemma; if you stand too long, just like sitting, it will have negative effects on your body. However, moving from one to the other frequently (every 30 minutes) has been shown to have positive effects, according to an Ergonomics In Design study.[3]  

To make sense of the benefits and risks of the new work stations, it is helpful to keep these things in mind:

  1. Traditional Desks: Sitting for a long period of time is bad for you
  2. Sit-to-Stand Desks: Standing for a long period of time is also bad for you but switching back and forth from sitting to standing reduces periods of prolonged sitting
  3. Treadmill Desks: By moving more often they help stimulate blood flow, increase your reaction times which can have positive effects, but they don't necessarily increase the accuracy of task completion. The cognitive energy your brain puts into physical movement can often impede its ability to concentrate on a detail-heavy tasks.
  4. Cycling desks: Similar to treadmill desks, they do increase blood flow but the long-term effects of sitting on a bicycle seat while working have yet to be determined 

Tips To Stay Healthy in Your Workspace

If alternative work stations are not in your future, here is one tip that is proven to be successful, costs nothing and significantly decreases the negative effects of sitting; get up and walk. Throughout the day, get up from your desk and walk around, get some air, go to the copier, or go speak face-to-face to a co-worker instead of sending an email. The outdated traditional breaks of 15 minutes twice a day and 30 minutes once a day are no longer sufficient. While studies are still out on the long-term effects of alternative workstations, routine breaks are indeed effective in reducing discomfort that is common with long-term sitting. 

The Ergonomics In Design article, "Stand up and Move; Your Musculoskeletal Health Depends on It," had is right when they said:

The key to better worker health and well-being is encouraging routine movement around the office… At the end of the day, having a culture that encourages breaks will be more successful in reducing symptoms of musculoskeletal discomfort for workers.Then everyone can return home pain-free.

If variety is the spice of life, then put on your walking shoes and start moving as a recipe for better health. 

 

[1]Hecker, Daniel E. and Ian D. Wyatt "Occupational Changes During the 20th Century" Monthly Labor Review (2005) 37
[2] Huysmans, Hidde P., Hiddie P. van der Ploeg, Karin I. Proper, Erwin M. Spekle and Allard J. van der Beek "Is Sitting Too Much Bad for Your Health?" Ergonomics in Design 23.3 (2015) 4. Print.
[3] Bassett, David R., Dinesh John and Kate Lyden "A Physiological Perspective on Treadmill and Sit-to-Stand Workstations" Ergonomics In Design 23.3 (2015) 14-19. Print.

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