The Impact of Standing While Working

Five or six years ago, it became very fashionable in business circles to introduce the stand-up meeting. Up to that point, it was expected that everyone attending a traditional business meeting was seated and deemed to be sufficiently comfortable to concentrate, to talk for hours on end, and even to daydream and doze. In the modern meeting room, however, this custom was considered unproductive and alternative concepts were proposed. The updated concept was to hold meetings where everybody stands, in a bid to maximise the concentration of participants.

This was thought to result in shorter, if more uncomfortable, meetings, in which decision-making was improved all round. The impact of standing while working, however, begs the question: Is standing at work really more efficient and beneficial for employees’ health?

Standing while working at a desk

It didn’t take too long before the next fashionable way to work in an office or at home was advanced: a standing desk.

Research in America demonstrated that office workers were sitting at their desks for an average of almost six hours every day. Suddenly there was a preoccupation with ensuring employees remained active, moving around at regular intervals, and the idea of the standing desk was born. The benefits associated with this change in working practices were said to include:

  • A reduced risk of obesity. Research shows that standing burns 50 more calories per hour than sitting and improves core strength.
  • Better posture. Ensuring the standing desk is set up correctly, posture improves particularly when using a computer screen.
  • A reduced risk of cancer. According to a study in 2011, which found links between prolonged sitting and certain types of cancer, reduced risk of breast cancer and colon cancer were noted.
  • Longer life expectancy. Research has shown that prolonged sitting may also be related to heart disease and diabetes.

While initial findings seemed very positive, there are also other considerations that must be taken into account when it comes to healthy and safe working practices. For example, new research has demonstrated that those standing on a hard surface for prolonged periods are likely to experience discomfort and pain, which may have long-term health implications. Individuals that work standing for long periods might develop problems with the feet such as bunions, tendonitis, swelling, and joint pain. Problems such as these are often referred to as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

Musculoskeletal disorders and statistical evidence

MSDs are health problems relating to one or more of the following areas:

  • Cartilage
  • Ligaments
  • Nerves
  • Muscles
  • Skeleton
  • Tendons
  • Vascular system

Research into MSDs generally identifies two types: upper and lower MSDs. Work-related MSDs have been studied closely, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlighting that work environments and how work is performed are major contributors to these disorders. A bad back is a very common complaint. In fact, in 2011/12, statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) revealed that 40 per cent of workers suffered in this way – approximately 176,000 people. In the same period, problems with the upper limbs and neck affected 177,000 workers, while 86,000 workers had illnesses relating to their lower limbs.

Time is money

In addition to being an important issue for workers, absenteeism as a result of work-related illness or disease is an important factor for employers, particularly when it comes to managing costs. The loss of 7.5 million working days due to MSDs in 2011/12 is a serious burden, and those professions most at risk include:

  • Assembly line and production workers
  • Catering
  • Engineers
  • Hairdressers
  • Healthcare workers
  • Machine engineers
  • Postal sorting office workers
  • Retail staff
  • Teachers

The problems of standing

Just as people who sit for too long can develop unnecessary health problems, so too can people who stand for too long. Fatigue from standing is a very real issue, particularly when working on hard surfaces. Your heart has to work harder, for example, and standing also puts pressure on your veins, increasing your risk of stroke and heart attack. The more tired you become, the more physical damage is being done. Standing in one position can adversely affect the soft tissue in your back, while shifting from one position to another can make you feel even more fatigued, so that joints such as knees and ankles might become increasingly tense and lock.

Best practice and self-help

Balancing the time spent standing and the hours spent sitting can be problematic, especially if you are employed in an occupation that puts you at risk. However, there are measures you can take proactively to reduce the discomfort of standing. For example, it is important to take into consideration the kind of surfaces you are standing on.

A study carried out by Loughborough University examined the effects of anti-fatigue matting by using a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures. Comparative tests indicated that the 14 participants who were tested felt they benefited from reduced fatigue when standing on anti-fatigue matting, compared to concrete.

Anti-fatigue matting should be chosen to suit your specific location by obtaining professional and knowledgeable guidance from a trusted supplier. Performance is affected by the thickness and compression level of a mat. It is also important to remember that comfort levels can be subjective and are likely to vary from person to person.

If you decide to install anti-fatigue matting, ensure it is large enough for the area that needs to be covered. It should also be suitable for the job in question. If you are an employer, make sure your workers are given comprehensive training to ensure that they understand and recognise that physical discomfort can lead to chronic injury. Certain actions can be avoided to make sure you do not get injured. For example, try to avoid bending or twisting unnecessarily when working.

Whether you are conscious of spending a lot of time sitting or standing, make sure you take regular breaks and change your posture often. Frequent changes in position are generally regarded as more beneficial for your health. Always wear the correct footwear for your tasks and ensure that the layout of your workstation optimises your physical health.

Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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