People + Process = Performance

Pros and Cons of Active Workstations

“Active” workstations, such as treadmill desks, have become popular recently, especially since the emergence of “sitting disease”.  The negative effects associated with prolonged sitting are pretty well established, increasing risk of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Because people hear that sitting is “bad” they automatically think that having an active workstation, i.e. walking while working, should be good for them.  It’ll burn some extra calories and keep them better focused and energized.    Office furniture companies have created products for “active” workstations that allow employees to be stand, walk, and cycle or sit on a balance ball.  The question employers and employees need to ask is the “active” workstation beneficial—for health & safety and productivity & quality.

From an ergonomic point of view these active workstations do present physical and cognitive challenges.  Physically the active workstations, especially the treadmills desks and balance balls, create the potential for injury due to the risk of falling, inappropriate fit of the ball height to desk height and/or treadmill workstation height to the employee height as well as potential awkward motions/postures that may be created from being active while working.   Active workstations also pose cognitive risk factors.  On the surface, it’s easy to think that being more active would lead to increased focus and concentration compared to sitting.  However, although these active workstation devices are easy to use they do take a certain amount of conscious and unconscious thought.  This divided attention can lead to employee errors and decreased productivity.

There aren’t any definitive answers yet but we’re starting to see research on the effects of these active workstations on employee performance. In 2011, a Mayo Clinic study of 11 transcriptionists found that typing speed and accuracy slowed by 16% while walking compared to sitting.  A University of Tennessee study in 2009 of 20 participants found that treadmill walking resulted in an up to 11% decrease in fine motor skills like mouse clicking, dragging and dropping and in cognitive functions such as math-problem solving.  The sample size of these studies is small so the results have to be taken with caution.

The effects on posture and muscular skeletal disorders is not clearly understood yet either.  Ball users typically self report t their posture is so much better compared to sitting.  However, a 2009 British study looked at 28 employees who used stability balls as their chairs and judged their postures to be as poor as those who sat in chairs.  There is a risk of lower back strain with stability ball usage because to use it properly the abdominal and back muscles must continually contract in order to maintain proper posture.  The user has to concentrate on maintaining their posture which can distract them from their work or their work may distract them from maintaining good posture or result in them falling/rolling onto the floor.

The potential liability and workers’ compensation claim from an incident with active workstations is another consideration for employers.  I’ve worked for and know of companies in which employees were injured from using stability balls—from employees falling off and in one situation when the ball burst.

The jury is still out on whether stability balls or treadmills are suitable, long term replacements for the desk chair.  I personally don’t see active workstations becoming standard use.  The use of sit-stand workstations (non-treadmill) are a better option in that employees are able to alternate their posture as often as they want during the work day but the static-ness of either position allows basically avoid the physical and cognitive risk factors of active workstations.  I would advise employers to carefully consider all aspects of “active” workstations before implementing.