In today's digital era, communicating with colleagues or clients no longer requires leaving your desk. Consequently, companies want to encourage employees to move more. This perhaps explains the growing popularity of standing desks—desks that you can work at while standing rather than sitting.
In a 2017 survey of more than 3,000 human resource professionals, the Society for Human Resource Management found that of more than 300 employee benefits covered in their research, companies providing employees with standing desks saw the biggest increase in the last five years. According to SHRM's report, “this new benefit grew more than threefold," from 13 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2017.
What's Behind the Standing Desk Trend
“Musculoskeletal discomfort rates among office workers are currently the highest ergonomists have observed due to increased computer usage," says Jonathan Puleio, a board certified professional ergonomist at Humanscale Consulting, which is headquartered in New York and provides guidance on the implementation of cost-effective ergonomics programs. “Many employees are open to any solution that could potentially reduce their discomfort levels."
Karolina Starczak, CEO of nutrition and wellness company Nutrimedy in Brookline, Massachusetts, noticed the discomfort almost immediately after a new role required her to spend 12 or more hours a day at her computer.
As a wellness consultant, Starczak had recommended sit-stand desks, adjustable-height desks that can be used while either seating or standing. So she followed her own advice, and the result was a drastic reduction in her knee pain. She also felt more energetic.
“Any time you're standing and moving a little more, you're going to feel more energized," she says.
—Eric Roth, Roth, partner, Kitsap Physical Therapy
Mark Bechtholt, co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based FameMoose, had a similar experience. A sit-stand desk significantly improved his cubital tunnel syndrome and posture problems.
“I also don't go through the post-lunch crash as much when standing," he says. “This small shift has resulted in an increase in productivity, as more of my difficult but high-impact work items don't get pushed off [to the next day]."
Those kinds of anecdotes may be helping to fuel the interest. According to Stephen Bao, senior ergonomics researcher for Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, questions about sit-stand desks have become more frequent in the last couple of years.
He says that employers have been trying for some time to prevent musculoskeletal problems and injuries due to static loading (prolonged maintenance of the same posture).
“People have been suggesting [for many years] the need to create physical variations, especially a change in posture," says Bao, who has a doctorate in industrial ergonomics and is a certified professional ergonomist.
He was surprised to find little or no research into the topic of sit-stand desks. But he and other researchers are trying to change that, especially as more workplaces implement this option.
“Big companies need to make office adjustments for worker health and safety, which costs a lot of money," he says. “With sit-stand desk workstations, individuals can do that themselves, so in the long run, companies are investing into these because it's cheaper."
The Pros and Cons of Standing Desks
Eric Roth, a physical therapist who specializes in occupational medicine and ergonomics, says that poor sitting posture often leads to headaches and pain in the neck, upper back and lower back.
“Postural fatigue is another phenomenon we see—people getting 'more tired' more quickly earlier in their workday, leading to a loss of productivity," says Roth, a partner with Kitsap Physical Therapy, a group-owned practice with multiple clinics in the Greater Seattle area.
Fatigue and discomfort “can have a significant impact on human performance," Humanscale Consulting's Puleio notes.
“Alternating between sitting and standing throughout the day can reduce discomfort levels and subsequently lead to an improvement to worker output," he says.
Standing, like walking, is a form of exercise and can help avoid a state of lull, according to Dr. Joey Kramer, chiropractor and owner of The Specific Chiropractic Center in Dallas, Texas. Kramer likes to use a standing desk when he's in creative mode. He also feels more engaged when he stands while talking to patients.
Ergonomics researcher Bao warns that standing for a long time is just as detrimental, so you shouldn't go from one extreme to the other. The key is to balance sitting and standing throughout the day. Nutrimedy's Starczak even sets reminders for herself so she doesn't forget to switch.
“We're not telling you to stand for eight hours and we're not telling you sit for eight hours a day; however, there needs to be the ability to move between the two," Kramer says.
Simply providing sit-stand workstations for your team won't guarantee results, Puleio cautions.
“Employees should receive ergonomics training on proper sit/stand intervals, adjustment guidelines and overall workstation setup," he says.
A big challenge, according to Bao, is that just like overall research, there is lack of definitive, evidence-based guidelines.
“Currently people are using office ergonomics guidelines and those are set for sitting stations and are not completely valid for standing," he says.
What You Need to Consider
Before switching to a standing desk, test out the idea.
“Hit up friends, family members and other people in the office who have standing or sit-stand workstations and try them out," physical therapist Roth recommends. “See what setup or combination of equipment is right for you before investing a lot of money."
Lori Vande Krol, a professional organizer and productivity consultant, suggests building an inexpensive, temporary standing station as another option. Or try a high countertop.
“Don't do it just because it's the trend and everyone else is doing it," says Vande Krol, founder of Life Made Simple LLC in Des Moines, Iowa. “Try it for a week and see if you like it."
If you're considering this for your employees, she suggests finding out what's driving their interest. “Get input—do employees want it because it's trendy, or do they have a good reason?" she says.
Starczak recommends starting with a shared standing desk station.
“If no one is using the desks in there for standing, then maybe adoption won't be great," she says.
Employers should look at standing desks as a shift in social norm and culture, not a furniture change.
“Be ready to make the commitment organizationally, and promoting it and educating employees," she says.
There are alternatives to standing desks, including using stability balls, providing stretching areas and encouraging activities such as standing meetings or taking short group walks throughout the day. But there's one more consideration for giving employees the opportunity to choose.
“Allowing employees to have a say, or most of a say, in the equipment that is purchased and incorporated into their workstations leads to a happier and more productive employ," says Roth. “Not imposing a set of potentially uncomfortable work conditions on someone will make them feel more empowered, because their voice and opinion has been listened to."