Blog - Getting people to move more – the challenge

Large open plan office with about thirty people sitting at desks in rows of about five peopleLast month I wrote about creating healthy workplace by good design, and emphasised the importance of creating a culture which encourages healthy behaviours. This can be a big ask for businesses, particularly here in New Zealand, as there are so many small businesses who have staff members covering several different roles and who are often chasing their tails, along with others who work part time to fit in child care or other family needs (though often do the equivalent of full time work part time hours – always ask a busy person to do something!).

In recent years, one of the ways of encouraging a healthier more active workplace has been the introduction of sit stand desks. While the idea sounds great (and I am certainly a fan of sit stand desks) it can be a big investment and is not to be taken lightly. I have come across considerable frustration from business owners, who feeling that they have done the right thing by buying sit stand desks, later find out that after a month or two, people are simply not using them…what was the point?!

So, it was heartening to hear Kevin Taylor, founder of Wellnomics (based here in Christchurch but known globally for creating pause break software for computer users), talking at a Canterbury Tech evening recently. His topic “The Science of Wellbeing” was about this very issue. About how we can provide the best furniture for our staff, but unless we take a wider approach and look at how we can change peoples’ behaviour, furniture alone will not create healthiness.

Why moving is important

Sitting down for long periods not only leads to low back problems for many people, it also leads to an overall deterioration in health with a higher risk of developing Type II diabetes, higher risk of cardiac disease and strokes, increased obesity with difficulty losing weight, and a higher risk of certain cancers.

Generally while business owners are becoming more aware of the risks to their staff of long periods of sitting, and are buying different furniture. However, as Kevin pointed out, just providing sit-stand workstations to staff is, by itself, unlikely to be effective. Research suggests that a significant additional investment is required in training and support to ensure workstations are properly utilised, and ensuring this is sustained, with this being key to achieving a good return-on-investment. Regular workstation set-up checks also remind individuals about how they/we are working and help reduce the risk of falling into bad habits such as failing to take regular lunch breaks.

With a little help from our (tech) friends

As some businesses consider this ongoing investment of training and support to be non-essential, we need to also look more to technology to make systems work better for us. For example, you might have a desk which moves automatically 2 or 3 times an hour, and you simply move with it, without having a make a conscious decision (difficult to do if you are in the middle of a focussed project). Like Wellnomics’ Workpace there are also some helpful software solutions that will remind you to move regularly too.

Moving boosts our brain power

And when if your business is looking at how to justify the expense of sit stand desks, (since many more chronic conditions will possibly not develop until some time after someone has left the workplace) there is clear evidence to show that standing to work some of the time, improves mental alertness almost immediately. Isn’t that what we want in our staff?

Wellnomics carried out an extensive research project to identify the benefits, or not, of using sit stand desks. A 2014 review paper looking at this question reviewed eight studies on sit-stand workstations that included productivity measures23.

Three of the studies reported an increase in productivity during sit–stand work, four reported no effect on productivity, and one reported mixed productivity results. The review therefore concluded that based upon the evidence to date:

“…sit–stand workstations do not cause a decrease in productivity.” 23

 Overall, though, the conclusion was that it is user motivation that encourages people to move more at work, with resulting better health. So, more education is needed for everyone to understand the dangers of not moving.

Here is the challenge. I still believe that it all comes back to company culture, to creating that healthy work environment and changing our approach to work.


23 Karakolis, T., & Callaghan, J. P. (2014). The impact of sit-stand office workstations on worker discomfort and productivity: A review. Applied Ergonomics, 45(3), 799-806.