Sit-stand desks seem to have come from nowhere, but are now associated with a campaign to "Get Britain Standing" and a growing narrative seeking to rid the UK workforce of sedentary working. Added benefits, claim those in favour, include increased productivity and improved employee wellbeing. But what are they like in practice?
14 September 2015 | By Jamie Harris
Standing desks are not a new phenomenon, and can in fact be traced as far back as the 1800s:
In 'Writing without a master: a practical treatise on the art of writing, by A Teacher of the New System of Writing; 1858', the author suggests "the first thing that is necessary to impress upon the learner's mind is the position to be occupied while writing; and, although a standing position is most healthful, it must be understood that the posture of the body, hands, and arm while writing, ought to be precisely the same at both standing and sitting desks. As nearly half the business writing is done at standing desks, it is much better for the learner to practise at a standing desk "
A little more recently, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: The Sedentary office: a growing case for change towards better heath and productivity, by John P Buckley et al, suggests that office workers should be on their feet for a minimum of two hours each day during working hours.
This daily quota is advised to break up prolonged periods of sitting with standing-based work and regular walking in the office.
"For those working in offices, 65-75 per cent of their working hours is spent sitting, of which more than 50 per cent of this is accumulated in prolonged periods of sustained sitting," say the authors.
But then there's the research published by the Mayo Clinic in 2014: In Sedentary Behavior, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Physical Activity, and Cardiometabolic Risk in Men:, The Cooper Centre Longitudinal Study, by Kerem Shuval et al, the association between prolonged sedentary time and poor health was found to be "markedly less pronounced when taking fitness into account".
This research suggested that its participants, who spent a lot of time working in a sedentary position but also exercised regularly, did not exhibit the negative effects connected to sitting for prolonged portions of the day. So, some conflicting accounts. But what is it like to have the option of sitting and standing at your desk?
A growing appetite for sit-stand?
The market for sit-stand desks appears to be growing and there are several manufacturers of manually and electronically adjustable sit-stand desks. Kinnarps UK's range of standing, and sit-stand desks starts from £400 - and that figure is important says Marc Bird, the company's head of marketing.
The company's own research found 98 per cent of respondents agreeing that they could see the attraction of introducing sit-stand working.And Kinnarps itself sees a "huge disparity" between the popularity of sit-stand working in the UK and Scandinavia.
So, enthusiasm to adopt - but in the same Kinnarps research just 10 interviewees (out of 132 questioned) reported sit-stand desks as being available within their organisation and a further 28% reporting that their use was limited to employees with health or mobility problems. There seems to be an aversion to the cost, but with the £400 price per desk and the annual runing costs (for raising and lowering the worktop) at 40p a year, Bird believes "employers need to consider the short-term purchase costs against the long-term potential costs of having a sedentary workforce." It certainly feels as if there is plenty of debate still to be had, particularly about whether the health benefits can outweigh the capital expenditure.
Chris Moriarty, development director, Leesman
"Having spent an hour with Gavin Bradley of Active Working (the man behind the Get Britain Standing Campaign), there are some astounding benefits from getting up and moving around for knowledge workers in particular. He told me to do my morning emails stood up. Blood flows quicker and therefore your brain is sharper. I flew through the emails."
Will Bowen, facilities manager, ActionAid
"The ActionAid FM team first started to look at standing work and meeting rooms spaces in 2014. This included installation of drop in benches in the office area. More recently we converted our old FM office into a stand-up creativity and innovation room for staff to use.
"Research we carried out showed our staff were keen to collaborate in areas other than traditional meeting rooms or break-out areas, and also to be able to think on their feet in shorter focused meetings solving problems around any project. Additionally we researched work and campaigns such as Get Britain Standing that also encourage and highlight the health benefits to workers who often spend a lot of their day at a desk. The feedback we have received from staff has been positive and the space is used frequently."
FM World decided to test the theory that standing in the office is good for your work as well as your health. Office furniture manufacturer Kinnarps let the FM World editorial team borrow a sit-stand desk with electronically adjustable height. Here's how the team, and others in our office, got on.
Martin Read, editor
"I couldn't escape the feeling that people would be looking at me - because you are certainly more exposed when standing at one of these things. When you sit, you're only visible above waist height. At a sit-stand, you're suddenly aware of being entirely visible to all of those close to you.
"I also felt a need to position the worktop at a height at which I could rest my elbows. Somehow, by having more contact with the desk I felt more connected to the work at hand; without that connection it was as if I was just walking past somewhere my work was, rather than being connected with it. I certainly understood the whole thing about circulation and feeling more energetic, but felt a bit odd when standing there for a long period of time."
Herpreet Grewal, news editor
"My first attempt at trying a sit-stand desk involved me sitting down like it was a normal desk. My colleagues were a bit flummoxed by this, but the post-lunch slump dictated I sit. I felt it was important to try the desk as a complete experience, as much sitting as standing.
A while later I took a break and stood up. It wasn't as momentous an event as I had envisioned, but I was impressed by how far the desk could rise to be comfortable for those of varying heights. I did feel more productive, but I'm not sure if it was down to the desk, or being in a quieter part of the office that was responsible for that. The thrill of using the desk was a little anti-climactic, but it was useful to have the option of standing if sitting got tiring."
Jamie Harris, assistant editor
"I'd jump on the standing desk if I got restless at my regular seated desk. I felt a sudden wave of energy working at the desk - whether that was more blood pumping or the self-fulfilling prophecy that I am more productive because I feel I should be more productive, I'm not sure. Either way, I felt I got a lot more done in the same amount of time.
"Being able to stretch my legs was useful, but I'd switch it to seated level for 20 minutes to rest, before standing again.
"The rest of the office was intrigued by the desk - those working on it were the centre of attention, which may or may not be a distraction. To get a true idea of its effectiveness, one would need to trial it every day for at least two weeks, if not a month."
Laura Edgar, reporter
"I stood at the sit-stand desk between 3pm and 4pm, breaking up the afternoon. Rather than slipping into a post-lunch slump, I felt more awake standing up for an hour, and able to stretch my legs. I got more work done in that hour than I would have done sat down, while my productivity levels continued once I sat down at my own desk.
"But I don't think I'd be able to stand all day and neither do I think having sit-stand desks throughout the office is a good idea. I think there should be an option; an area with sit-stand desks for people to book out and use as and when they want to, with employers encouraging staff to use them. An hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon would be best for me."