If you are sitting down to read this story, you are taking a risk – a risk to your own health and to your company’s financial health too!

Sedentary behaviours – which means sitting or lying down while awake – are playing havoc with our health, according to Professor David Dunstan, head of the physical activity lab at Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute.

When we sit down to work, we increase our risk of diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders (affecting our body’s joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves and tendons), and cardiovascular disease (conditions of the heart and blood vessels), Dunstan says.

Not good. And company leaders take note: those disorders make up 44% of compensation cases and account for 22% of workplace sick leave in Australia.

The way we work is killing us. The average worker spends 80% of their work hours sitting, and that adds up over a lifetime to about 80,000 hours (nine years).

These dramatic findings are behind a new trend – some might say fad – in office furniture: the sit-stand workstation.

Sit-stand desks and workstations are height-adjustable, allowing people to move from a sitting position to a standing position. Some are raised at the touch of a button, and others manually, but both types have a hefty price tag.

Bronwyn McKenzie, a sales consultant with Adelaide-based Zenith Interiors says: “Sit-stand desks can add significant cost. [But] there is a lot of interest in them. We find in most commercial fit-outs, they are being considered. To what degree depends on the culture.”

McKenzie says science is driving interest in height-adjustable desks, with studies finding that people who change work position every hour are more productive.
Modern workplaces are designed to encourage us to move; the sit-stand desk is just another opportunity to do so.

Stand-up opportunities

In activity-based offices, we choose workspaces according to the tasks we are doing: large meeting rooms to collaborate, open office space for routine tasks, quiet rooms to focus and be alone, and “nooks” to meet in small groups for a quick chat.

The idea that office design can go past influencing productivity to influence our mental and physical wellbeing, is a relatively new one, but it is taking hold.

Organisational psychologist, Keti Malkoski, is the co-author of a new book: The Power of Workspace for People and Business, and a principal of furniture company, Schiavello.

Malkoski says customers are excited about sit-stand workstations. “What we need to change are people’s attitudes and behaviours,” she says. “We had an independent push for this type of product, which is fantastic because they ultimately provide a tool for improving health and wellbeing.”
Simply moving from sitting to standing and back again is not, on its own, going to improve health and productivity. However, the new desks are a powerful tool when combined with office designs that encourage movement, and training to help change attitudes, Malkoski says.

It’s about change and culture, not just furniture

Natasha Ugrinic, South Australian manager of office furniture company Stylecraft, says without training sit-stand desks can be a waste of money. “There’s a lot of interest, but the reality is that once we install them, staff don’t use them,” she says. “I do think they are a great idea – whether, for a young person or someone in their 50s, it’s great for the circulation to be standing.”

There’s a risk that the desks are chosen as a box-ticking exercise, or used selectively to attract top-notch staff, Ugrinic says.

She’d love to see more consultation with staff before any changes are made, and education about how to adjust them safely once installed.

Office furniture has always been designed to support our work; what’s different today is that those tasks are so much more varied. The desk and chair partitioned off in an office pod were designed for long hours of typing/data entry. Standing and walking meetings, standing to take phone calls and the variety of spaces in which work happens today demands different designs.

For nooks and breakout spaces, lounges and low benches or chairs are more residential in look and feel. But they are designed differently, says Zenith’s Brownyn McKenzie, so people don’t get too comfortable! And technology is shaping radically new designs, with desks or tables built around large screens to make it easier to collaborate using new media.

Schiavello’s Keti Malkoski says the lines between home and work are blurring, and that is reflected in the furniture design. And, while sit-stand desks are one of the biggest trends in furniture the industry is seeing, the overall trend is about improving health and wellbeing. She says: “That is fantastic.”

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