Should we really be telling people to stand more?

March 10, 2015

At the end of the recent Health & Wellbeing at Work conference in Birmingham (England), there was an animated debate about whether or not standing improves the wellbeing and productivity of workers. Votes were taken at the start and finish of the discussion. Interestingly, by the end of the debate, those who believed this to be the case decreased and the abstentions more than doubled!

In view of all the recent publicity about the perils of prolonged sitting, this outcome might seem anomalous. After all, the participants were nearly all ergonomists, physiotherapists, health & safety and occupational health professionals. Surely all the evidence means we should stand more?


All the evidence suggests we should sit less. And that is not the same thing at all.

sit-stand-exampleJust replacing static sitting postures with static standing postures is not the answer. There is a much bigger picture to be addressed. As a vendor of sit-stand desks for nearly 20 years, I am delighted that there is much more interest in such products. They offer both the musculoskeletal benefits we have been propounding and, as recent evidence now suggests, cardiovascular benefits too. However, their implementation will only be effective as an integral part of a broader initiative to encourage less sitting and more movement.

walking_meetingMore walking meetings, taking and making telephone calls on the move, locating printers and water coolers away from desks, drinking lots of water (to create natural breaks) and many other simple, effective (and often free) techniques can be applied to the workplace to increase movement and reduce cardiovascular risks. However, these ideas also involve behaviour change and this is the crucial issue.

Those organisations that simply install lots of sit-stand desks will find, in quite a short time, that they have achieved little. It is likely that users will soon revert to entirely seated behaviours and quite possible that many will never even attempt standing work at all. Without proper guidance, those who do try standing may find that it simply does not suit them. Even with appropriate footwear (a factor which is often ignored), standing workers may be susceptible to varicose veins, flat feet, corns, bunions and an array of other conditions. Done to excess, too much standing can be bad for you too!

In the United States, confusion is increased by references to ‘standing desks’, leading individuals to believe they should stand all the time. In Europe, the more common term is ‘sit-stand’ which at least implies in the name that the two activities should be mixed. But they should also be mixed with movement. Referring to available information about sedentary behaviour, one of the speakers in Birmingham, stated that more research is needed but the current ‘picture is grey’. Actually, it is many shades of grey.

problems_at_workThe binary sit-or-stand approach will not work. Employers implementing sit-stand without applying a holistic approach to ways of working will not only be wasting their money but worse, may simply be replacing one set of problems with another set.

Good Posture is a Buzz away

August 10, 2012

I often have conversations about the benefits of training. How much do people retain? Does it bring about genuine behaviour change? How long before they revert to old habits? I am not a specialist trainer so I have no intention of exploring the psychology of training in general. However, I am very interested in posture training and the long-term health benefits of good ergonomics.

As I have stated elsewhere, many office furniture suppliers offer no training at all when they install products.  Some of the more specialist seating suppliers do the “how” training (what the knobs and levers do) but it’s really important that users also understand “why” (what is a good posture and why is it important to set up the workstation properly?).

We know that a good chair, no matter how good, may provide little benefit unless the user is properly trained to optimise the features it offers. That is why we place such emphasis on this training – and on support tools such as the free Posture Guidance. But the big question still exists about how much of the original training and good behaviour is retained and sustained over time. If someone has a bad back or existing musculo-skeletal issues, it’s likely that self-preservation will encourage them to adopt good practice but that is less likely for those with no current evidence of MSD problems.

What would happen if you released the user from this responsibility and let the chair do the work by warning (with vibration and an audible buzzer) when poor posture occurs? What if you could take a good chair and make it “intelligent” – monitoring the user’s position on the seat and their contact with the back rest? What if you could track this data and provide feedback to users, management and Occupational Health? What if this technology was readily available, affordable, easy to set up and simple to use?

In my case the answer to all these “what ifs” is that I would be rather excited. And I am! I don’t normally blog about a specific product but I genuinely believe that the new BMA Axia Smart Chair has achieved an ergonomist’s Holy Grail.

Trials in its native Netherlands have been highly successful and we are just starting to look for projects in the UK.  All the technology is contained in the seat pad and back rest so the rest of the chair is a standard BMA Axia Office model. Furthermore, you can convert an existing Axia to a Smart version in less than 5 minutes.  And the extra cost is much less than I expected.

After 20 years in workplace ergonomics, I am usually rather cynical about the claims of new products.  I have been disappointed so many times!  However, I think the claims made for the Axia Smart Chair are actually rather tame in relation to its potential. I love what it does. I love the simplicity. I love the price. I love the fact that it just works!  We also have over a year’s successful experience with the Back-Track manual handling device which uses similar technology to correct bad lifting habits.

At the time of writing, we still have to run some field trials to ensure it fulfils all its promises but the proven projects in the Netherlands suggest I shall continue to be impressed.

%d bloggers like this: