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Sitting is killing us, but standing is awkward

Our sedentary lifestyles are a global health hazard but social discomfort is preventing us standing up and fixing the problem, new research says.

There’s more than one way to die of embarrassment.

The “sedentary lifestyle”, typical for office workers, has been described as an epidemic and linked to increased risk of everything from diabetes and cardiovascular disease to anxiety and depression. In fact, a recent study by VicHealth and the National Health and Medical Research council found that providing standing desks to a fifth of office workers would save $84 million in healthcare costs and 7,492 health-adusted life years.

But one reason we haven’t tackled a problem this potentially fatal is the sheer awkwardness of it all, says a new report.

Published in PLOS ONE, the research followed participants who attempted to stand, where appropriate, during several office meetings (a local initiative called Standup Australia looked at meetings as possible events to reduce total sitting time). The researchers then conducted interviews about their experiences. These ran the gamut but largely showed that the psychological effect of standing is more powerful than you might think.

The researchers outlined four themes of awkwardness experienced by their subjects, with direct quotes to support their framing.

1. Physically awkward

It turns out standing hurts after a while for many people. Also, when a room is designed for sitting, standing tends to get logistically weird.

  • “I was thinking ‘oh my back is killing me!’ There’s the realisation that, oh I can’t stand for very long!”
  • “Bending down and trying to take notes, it didn’t feel natural.”

2. Socially awkward

We all get this one. You’re the one person in the room that’s different, and you sense it in your bones: “Everyone is looking at me”. Clowns feel this way when they take the bus.

  • “Someone else looked at me and they were gesturing that they’d saved me a seat! I felt super awkward and sat down.”
  • “I lied and told them I had a health reason for needing to stand.”

3. Awkward power dynamics

Remember how your primary school teacher would stand at the front of the classroom? That wasn’t because they were reading cutting edge research on sedentary lifestyles. From prisons and clothing factories to the animal kingdom, we assume the only mammal standing is the one in charge.

So standing works both ways. For people running a meeting, it actually helps their confidence levels. But for everyone else it feels weird.

  • “I probably addressed everyone and raised my voice a little, projected it a bit more than I might do if I was seated. Standing is a much more confidence-boosting posture.”
  • “As a junior member I wouldn’t really be willing to stand up and say, ‘well I’m standing up because I want to stand up’.”

4. The implications of awkwardness

This is perhaps the most crucial consideration for HR when it comes to setting policy. Standing can impact engagement in a meeting. People in the study reported that standing put them in the mood to make everything more direct.

  • “Because I was standing … [I was] kind of more ‘let’s get on with it, let’s get to the point’. Because it’s not so relaxed as being sat back in a chair.”

Switching between standing and sitting also seemed to help retain high energy levels. This came both from the natural boost of the physical activity, as well as the fact that once you’re standing you become more conscious that people are paying attention to whether you’re focused.

  • “Because I was both at the front of the room and standing, I felt much more like I had to, even if I wasn’t engaged, look like I was more engaged, which then made me more engaged!”

But what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily as nice for the gander. Some people reported that standing was taking up too much emotional energy.

  • “When I did sit down, I was like (sighs). More relaxed. I could just focus on the meeting, not focus on my standing.”
  • “Standing up made me feel like I wasn’t part of the group. [Once I sat down] I felt like I was then part of the meeting. And it felt more like we were a team group coming to some decisions and stuff, because we were all on the same eye level.”

What should you do?

The study essentially boils down to a fairly obvious conclusion. If you want a workplace that doesn’t contribute to unhealthy sedentary lifestyles, it isn’t enough to mention that standing is now an option. You have to think of it as a cultural issue, get leadership buy-in, and even consider how office design can be changed to make standing a more attractive option.

Do you have an awkward story about the politics of standing? We’d love to read them in the comments.


Keep up to date with the latest workplace health and safety requirements with AHRI’s elearning modules on WH&S topics including ergonomics and work-life balance.

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