For a long time, workstation design was centred around ergonomics. The question was: What is the best position to be in for hours at a time?
Of course this is important, but sitting for long periods is incredibly bad for your health, no matter what position you’re in. Sitting is associated with higher risk of death, heart disease, cancer, cancer-related deaths, heart disease-related deaths and diabetes. (1)
And, of course, it’s not just while we’re working that we sit. We sit to eat, we sit in our cars, we sit on the toilet, and then at the end of the day we might relax by sitting in front of the TV.
So, in recent years, standing desks have been marketed as the answer to our problems. Of course, standing all day long is not really much better than sitting all day, and brings problems of its own.
What we really need is not another static posture, but variety. This comes in two forms:
- Taking breaks
- Variable workstations
I’m just going to talk about variable workstations here as taking breaks is a whole topic of its own.
There are all sorts of options available, from standing desks, sit-stand desks, treadmill desks and so on, but creating variable workstations doesn’t necessarily mean buying a new desk.
Everyone’s work is different, so I’ll talk through some general principles with examples, but you’ll need to apply this to your own work situation.
1 – Do you need to be at your desk to do this task?
Having a single fixed workstation tends to lead us to do all of our work there, even if we don’t necessarily need to. Can you take a walk while you make phone calls? Walks (especially in nature) can also be good for stimulating creativity and thinking through difficult problems.
Planning may be better done on a large whiteboard or table, where you can see the bigger picture and move around to look at things from different perspectives.
If you need to talk to a colleague, go and visit them rather than firing off an email from your desk.
2 – Try going analogue
Computers are incredible productivity tools, but it’s worth being mindful of the specific benefits they offer, compared to analogue tools like notebooks. I’ve written more about digital vs analogue tools for work, but in short, not all tasks need a computer. Identifying tasks that can be done at least as well on paper can help get you away from your desk for more of the day.
Reading is at least as good in a bean bag or even lying down on a mattress, futon or comfy rug.
3 – Floor sitting
One of the reasons sitting is so much of a problem is that we tend to do it in chairs. Chairs are (usually) pretty comfortable, and they tend to put us in a fixed position for a long time.
Standing and walking are good alternatives, but having more options is better for more variety.
Floor sitting has some specific advantages over sitting in chairs:
- Sitting on the floor encourages more movement and changes of position than sitting in chairs.
- Floor sitting can strengthen the core and lower back.
- By getting up and down from the floor regularly, you’ll improve and maintain your flexibility and mobility.
- There are a wide range of floor sitting postures, and they are all slightly different from each other and from sitting in a chair in their patterns of muscle length and tension.
You can use a coffee table, or just a box on the floor, and support yourself with cushions, rolled up blankets or towels or even specialist yoga bolsters. We’ve cut down the legs of our dining table at home to make sure we’re sitting on the floor at least a few times a day.
4 – Standing workstations
While there are a whole range of standing desks you can buy, it’s actually just as good to put a laptop on a shelf, on top of a tall filing cabinet or use a box or stand to raise your computer on any other surface to get it to the right height for standing.
When you’re setting up your standing desk, or floor sitting workstation, it’s still important to be mindful of things like screen height and keyboard position. There’s a pretty thorough overview of desk ergonomics here.
5 – Change it up regularly
The most important thing is to change your posture and working position regularly. Get into the habit of taking breaks, and change up your position each time. If you’ve got a lot of repetitive work to do, try to break it up and intersperse with a different task. There’s a balance to be struck here between efficiency and avoiding long stretches of repetitive motions, which can cause problems and injuries.
Aviroop Biswas, Paul I. Oh, Guy E. Faulkner, Ravi R. Bajaj, Michael A. Silver, Marc S. Mitchell, and David A. Alter. Sedentary Time and Its Association With Risk for Disease Incidence, Mortality, and Hospitalization in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 2015 DOI: 10.7326/M14-1651