Standing breaks give office workers pause for thought

By June Shannon Heart News   |   14th Sep 2018

Standing up or taking a break from the office chair can help some desk-based workers deal more effectively with problem solving, as stepping away from their desks can provide some valuable thinking space, a new study has suggested.

Office based workers are at risk of ill health due to the long periods of time they spend sitting down and therefore this new study, which was presented at an international conference in NUI Galway recently, examined workers’ reactions and experiences to the introduction of interventions designed to help them reduce their sitting time.

Research has shown that people who sit for more than 8 hours a day, double their risk of developing heart disease compared to those who sit for less than 4 hours a day.

Therefore, for this new study Dr Benjamin Gardner, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology at King’s College London in the UK, sought to help reduce the sitting time of 29 university office workers by introducing a specific sit less intervention. The intervention included an awareness-raising monitoring and feedback task, a sit-stand workstation, and a ‘menu’ of behaviour change techniques tailored to self-declared sitting-reduction barriers.

“Efforts to reduce sitting should focus on the outcomes that workers will value,"

Dr Benjamin Gardner, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology , King’s College London in the UK,

The office workers were interviewed at 1, 6, and 12-weeks post-intervention. Interviews focused on expectations and experiences of standing, workplace-specific constraints, and the usefulness of selected techniques designed to reduce sitting time.

According to the findings, while there was some psychological discomfort from breaking the sitting norm for some workers, it was less than expected. However, many encountered unanticipated practical barriers for example insufficient space on the sit-stand workstation.

Participants often attempted to stand only for periods of ‘worthwhile’ duration (e.g. 20 minutes and some felt unable to stand for cognitively demanding tasks, though others felt better able to complete ‘thought work’ while standing, the study found.

Speaking to the Irish Heart Foundation about his work Dr Gardner said, that in order to best support office-based workers to reduce their sitting time it was necessary to understand the priorities of office workers.

“Efforts to reduce sitting should focus on the outcomes that workers will value. Office workers typically go to work to get their work done, and so we should focus on the benefits of standing for work performance. For example, our research shows that, when trying to solve a difficult problem, standing up and going for a walk, or even just stretching, can provide thinking space and so help with finding a solution,” Dr Gardner explained.

"Once individuals and businesses can see a benefit to sitting less, there will be a change in behaviour,"

Enda Campbell, Workplace Relations Manager, Irish Heart Foundation

The study also suggested that providing regular reminders to break up sitting – for example, setting an hourly desktop alert – are unlikely to work if an office worker is in the middle of a task. In such circumstances, workers may not pay attention to the alert, or may choose to ignore it. Dr Gardner recommends that workers should instead plan to stand between completing one task and starting another.

Commenting Enda Campbell, Workplace Relations Manager at the Irish Heart Foundation said, “Once individuals and businesses can see a benefit to sitting less, there will be a change in behaviour. This study highlights the benefits of standing breaks while showing that there were less barriers than expected.”

Dr Gardner’s study entitled: Office workers’ experiences of an early-phase sitting-reduction intervention (the ReSiT Study): A qualitative analysis, was presented at the 32nd Conference of the European Health Psychology Society (EHPS) which took place in NUI Galway from 21 to 25 August. The EHPS is the largest professional organisation of health psychologists in Europe with more than 600 members worldwide and 750 delegates attended the conference.

The theme of this year’s conference was ‘Health Psychology Across the Lifespan: Uniting Research, Practice and Policy’.

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