Standing up at work can be good for your health. That is the finding of recent research which links standing-based work to improved health outcomes. It follows numerous other studies that show how our sedentary work habits may be killing us.
The latest research, co-commissioned by Public Health England, looked at the health effects of prolonged periods of sitting in offices. It found that workers who sit at their desks for long periods are at increased risk of various physical illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Sitting down for long hours can potentially lead to premature death.
The solution? Get a standing desk and get out of your chair more by working standing up and taking short active breaks. The research recommends at least two to four hours a day of standing-based activity and highlights the health costs of modern office work and the need to resolve them. The findings go as far as suggesting the need for a “revolution” in the way that offices are designed and organised.
Stories such as these catch the eye for their novelty, but there are some far broader questions about work-related health that they fail to address. Beyond the question of office ergonomics, there are some other crucial factors that influence our health at work. Though their novelty value is far less, they are likely to persist, even with the wider availability of stand-up desks and active breaks.
Workers who are given a stand-up desk won’t experience better health outcomes if they are also exposed to a heavy workload, intensive and long work hours, restricted work duties, and job insecurity. Indeed, in the face of these conditions, workers may view the encouragement of stand-up working as some kind of sop from managers – a hollow gesture that fails to address the real problems they face at work.
Work-related mental ill-health – including stress, depression and anxiety – remains a significant problem in UK workplaces. It is induced not just by the pressure of high workloads and high work intensity but also by the lack of control over work. Workers who lack autonomy at work find it more stressful. They also face greater physical ill-health and are more likely to die early.
The problems of limited autonomy and its negative impacts on health illustrate the wider changes needed in the workplace – beyond redesigning office furniture and extending active stand-up breaks. It indicates the need for broader changes in the governance and structure of organisations. Workers need to have greater say over how they work and when. This would improve both their physical and mental health.
Democratising the workplace
Standing up at work, in short, cannot resolve the ill-health effects of low autonomy work. Nor can it make workers appreciate and enjoy work more, where it is imposed on them, without their direct input.
If they are to improve their health as well as well-being, workers ultimately need to stand up for their rights at work. They need to demand not just stand-up desks and more frequent active breaks but also more control over their work. They need to push for, and secure, access to more democratic forms of workplace governance, in which their voice is heard more loudly and more frequently acted upon.
A more democratic workplace would have a flatter management structure and would allow greater worker participation in decision-making. In practice, work would be managed cooperatively and would be arranged in a way that gives workers the freedom to decide the scope and performance of the tasks they are allocated. Such an environment would not only be more pleasant to work in but would also help to support better health outcomes. Indeed evidence supports the health-improving effects of a more democratic work environment.
Employers, of course, are much more likely to change the type of desks available in offices than change the management structure in organisations. But if they are serious about raising employee health and well-being they need to take these more radical steps.
“We need an environment where people feel much more liberated to do desk standing”, it has been argued. In fact, what we need is an environment in which workers have the autonomy to take genuine decisions over the way they work. In other words, we need workplaces that value workers not just as instruments of production but also as real human beings with rights and needs of their own.
Only by creating more democratic structures at work can the health and well-being of workers be significantly and decisively improved.