Standing for Comfort

Sitting does not exempt people from the injury risks usually associated with more physically demanding tasks. And standing may increase productivity, a new study concludes.

IN corporate America, we are obsessed with productivity, reduced costs, and the "bottom line." Add to this all the concerns about safety and ergonomics, and you have the makings of a colossal headache. In fact, in some cases, I think the obsession with productivity has gone a little too far, even taking a step backward.

Our company is a good example of this dedication to increasing efficiency. Several years ago, we purchased new computers for the office employees. As part of the "package deal," these machines arrived with printers that quickly were installed within reach at every workstation. This meant the employees had virtually no reason for leaving their desks. When asked where I wanted my printer, I replied, "In the box."Call me inefficient, ineffective, unproductive . . . call me anything you want, but I need an excuse to get up and walk around. After a couple of hours, I need to take a moment to relax and shift gears. And despite my "ergonomically designed" chair, my back needs a break, as well.

Apparently, a lot of other people feel the same way. Why? The human body is not made to sit for extended periods of time. It is designed to be upright and on the move. Therefore, sitting is not the panacea for workers' fatigue. Sitting is a very static work position. In fact, it is more static than standing and can put more stressors on the human body.

Until recently it was assumed that sitting was a much more comfortable working position than standing. Although sitting jobs require less muscular effort, less is not better in this case. The limited muscle movement means reduced circulation and ultimately more discomfort and fatigue. In addition, this static posture does not exempt people from the injury risks usually associated with more physically demanding tasks. For example, clerks, electronic assembly-line employees, and data entry operators who work in a sitting position also suffer back pain, muscle tenderness, and aches. In fact, reports of varicose veins, stiff necks, and numbness in the legs are more common among seated employees than among those who stand to work.

Another common assumption is that standing is inherently uncomfortable and lessens efficiency and output over time. However, a recent study disputes that assumption and indicates that standing may in fact, increase productivity.

Dr. Marvin J. Dainoff from the Center For Ergonomic Research at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, recently published a study, "The Effect of Ergonomic Worktools on Productivity In Today's Automated Workstation Design." Although Dr. Dainoff did not set out to show that standing at work can actually increase productivity, his study certainly indicates those participants who chose to stand were more productive.

The purpose of Dr. Dainhoff's study was to evaluate the role that ergonomic tools can play in the performance of workstation design and its overall effect on worker productivity. He asserted that the principal source of productivity in the modern office is the human being in front of a PC, resulting in a large percentage of employees' workdays spent sitting in one basic posture in front of the computer. (I think many of us would agree with that statement.) He also asserted that routine breaks from this type of work have been all but eliminated by the implementation of the totally automated workstation.

Therefore, Dr. Dainhoff developed the parameters of this study using certain assumptions, the most relevant of which was that sitting for prolonged periods is problematic and can be linked to reduced productivity and other fatigue-related issues. One of the goals of the study was to assess the effectiveness of periodically standing throughout the day and its effect on workers' productivity.

Methodology
One goal of the research was to assess the attributes of ergonomic work tools, so the study included use of a Flipper-style keyboard support and an adjustable monitor arm. Participants were trained for 45 minutes on how and why to make specific adjustments to these devices, including how to raise them so they could be used if the participant were working in a standing position.

  • On Day One, the participants were asked to use the ergonomic devices to lessen fatigue as they worked.
  • On Day Two, the participants used the same equipment but also were asked to stand several times throughout the day as they were working.
  • On Day Three, the participants were given no guidance and allowed to work in whatever manner they chose.
  • During the length of the study, the participants were allowed to take breaks whenever required.

Results: Many Participants Chose to Stand
On Day One, 36 percent of the participants stood to work for at least part of the day.

Those who stood on Day One stood 40 percent more on Day Three. In the subsequent interviews, the participants revealed that they felt the benefits of standing and therefore, wanted to do it more frequently. More than 57 percent of the participants who did not stand at all on Day One, stood on Day Three after being asked to stand on Day Two. Over the course of the three-day study, the length of time the participants stood increased from Day One to Day Two by 65 percent and remained essentially the same on Day Three.

On Day Three, more than half of the participants stood regularly. This is important because the "lab" was designed to simulate a normal work environment, and there were no instructors to influence the manner in which they completed their tasks. The subjects were standing for their own comfort.

Dr. Dainhoff divided the participants into two groups: the Standers (those who stood on Day Three) and the Non-Standers (those who did not stand on Day Three). There was a significant difference between the two groups in terms of the number and length of workbreaks. On average, the Non-Standers took 47 percent more work-related breaks than the Standers and the length of each break was 56 percent longer. This dramatically affected productivity because the Standers spent an increased amount of time accomplishing their tasks. This translated into a significant reduction of fatigue-related productivity loss.

In addition, the Standers felt they were more productive as a result of adjusting their equipment, while Non-Standers were less likely to feel any adjustment to equipment made a positive impact on productivity. Dr. Dainhoff concluded that only dramatic postural changes increased comfort over time. Interestingly enough, none of the participants were offered the use of anti-fatigue mats. They simply stood on the hard floor in front of their workstations.

Conclusions
Although this study produced many very interesting results and conclusions, there are two of particular relevance:

  1. Using the right ergonomic worktools provides the ability to get into and maintain ergonomically correct postures. The use of the adjustable keyboard and monitor arm allowed the participants to naturally gravitate to a more comfortable standing position.
  2. The second criterion for efficient work is to provide movement throughout the day while accomplishing tasks. This is required to promote blood flow to muscles and relieve fatigue resulting from static exertion.

Standing is a natural human posture and by itself poses no particular health hazard. In fact, when standing, the body is in one of its most comfortable positions. The lumbar curvature is naturally maintained, the spinal column is properly supported, and the body's internal organs are in a relaxed, natural position. This is illustrated in the study because more than half of the participants chose to stand up to work even though they stood on a hard floor.

What would the results have been if the workers had been given anti-fatigue mats to stand on when they took breaks from sitting? Because anti-fatigue mats accomplish the second criterion for efficient work (i.e., to promote blood flow to muscles, relieving fatigue resulting from static exertion), I assert the participants would have spent even more time standing and perhaps taken productivity to an even higher level. When an individual stands on an anti-fatigue mat, his leg muscles subtly contract and expand as they adjust to the flexibility of the mat. This muscle movement increases blood flow and increases the amount of oxygen reaching the heart. And fatigue is greatly reduced.

Although further research into the positive correlation between a standing posture and worker productivity is warranted, Dr. Dainhoff's study is extremely thorough and very enlightening. It was made possible through a grant from ErgoSystems Inc. and can be viewed in its entirety by visiting that company's Web site, www.ErgoSystems.com/ErgoInfo/research.html.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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