There is a great deal of research and data on the benefits of standing desks for health and business productivity in the workplace. Our office culture has also led to an awareness of back and neck pain causing loss of work days through absence, which can often also lead to stress and depression.
Poor posture and ergonomics are blamed by numerous studies into musculoskeletal disorders and working practices. Combining data from this research and studies on the productivity benefits of using a standing desk brings us to the conclusion that the overall effect on economies of the UK, US and others with a sedentary office culture would be dramatic.
Even with conservative estimates, using ergonomic desks would increase business productivity by £5 Billion per annum in the UK alone.
Lost Working Days Due to Musculoskeletal Disorders
As might be expected, official estimates vary in gauging the direct cost to the economy from poor ergonomic design in the workplace. However, it is clear when reviewing the available data that the problem is a serious one. The Work Foundation, in a study looking specifically at back pain, found that in the UK, 12.5% of all sick days are attributable to back pain.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK reported that in the Labour Force Survery for Great Britain in 2016, 539,000 cases of work related illnesses in the 2015/16 financial year were due to Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WRMSDs). This was 41% of all cases and accounted for 8.8 million lost work days, averaging 16 days per case.
8.8 million lost working days is estimated at over £2 Billion in lost productivity. Further reports indicate that 4 million of these working days are at risk of re-occurring.
A Personnel Today article in 2016 suggested that 44 million workers across the EU suffered from work musculoskeletal disorders, at a cost of 2% of GDP – which in the UK is around $54 Billion or £42 Billion. With over 10% of those lost working days likely to reoccurr, the value of preventing that reoccurrance is around £5 Billion.
Potential Productivity Gains from Standing Desks
Studies have shown standing desks to improve reduce neck and back pain issues related to posture by 42%. Given the figures above, this would be worth £2.1 Billion to the UK per annum.
Many varied studies into the performance benefits from using standing desks at work suggest an increased productivity of 30%. Reasons cited include increased alertness, energy and cognitive performance.
If just the number of people at risk of recurring lost working days due to work related musculoskeletal disorders (225,000) were given standing desks, a 30% productivity boost would be worth over £3 Billion. This is around £13,000 per employee.
Given that an ergonomic system such as the Kangaroo Pro standing desks offered by Project Ergo in the UK and Europe cost around the £500 mark, this looks like a good business investment – even for those without chronic back or neck problems.
Let’s look at some of the many other studies that point to standing desks being a route to better staff health and business productivity:
Workplace Health Studies
Office ergonomics is a key area of concern for businesses, with the increasing recognition that poorly designed workspaces can cause or exacerbate health problems to the extent that employees are absent from work for significant amounts of time.
A large number of studies have been conducted to assess the specific problems associated with physical and mental health attributable to poor workplace ergonomics, and the evidence shows a measurable increase in lost work days and financial cost.
A University of Leeds study of almost 5,000 office workers found that 80% of participants suffered from some health problems related to poor posture, with 18% reporting that these conditions contributed towards stress and depression.
In a 2016 policy report titled “Working with Arthritis” the Arthritis Research Foundation, looking at the broader context of musculoskeletal disease in general, found that between 2013–4, around 526,000 participants had a musculoskeletal disorder which was either caused or made worse by work, including 183,000 newly reported cases compared to the previous period.
This resulted in 8.3 million working days lost. To compare this to mental health, the figures showed 487,000 people, including 244,000 new cases had a mental health problem caused or made worse by work, and 11.3 million working days were lost.
The report links the two, stating “The relationship between physical and mental health is considered by many to be bi-directional – i.e. the two conditions influence each other. Pain can be the linking factor, it is a common symptom of musculoskeletal conditions, and depression is four times more common for those people in persistent pain than in those without.”
The Health and Safety Executive has published data on the number of working days lost due to cases of work-related ill health and workplace injuries each year since 2000. The most recent data, from 2014/15 shows a total of 23.3 million days were lost due to work-related ill health and 4.1 million due to workplace injuries. On average, the length of absence from the workplace was 15 days, or 3 working weeks. The total economic cost is estimated at £14.3 billion.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy reports a similar headline figure of around £15 billion of lost productivity due to neck and back pain, and also discusses the effects of these issues on the length of workplace absence, stating that 5% of sick leave lasts over four weeks, representing just under half of the total working days lost annually.
As well as the measurable direct costs discussed above, businesses are also likely to suffer the knock-on effects in the form of indirect costs related to lower productivity, lack of employee satisfaction and morale, insurance and compensation costs and higher staff turnover.
An article by Occupational Health Business Management identifies six key factors which increase both the direct and indirect costs of workplace health issues:
- Reduction in productivity due to less workers.
- Obligations to pay the salary or sick pay of absent workers.
- Having to find, train and pay for temporary cover.
- The possibility of reduced customer satisfaction.
- Reduction in motivation and morale from the other staff.
- Other employees having to bear the extra workload, which has the potential to lead to overwork, stress, and further sickness absence.
Examination of the available data suggests that where businesses place importance on ergonomic factors, it is possible not only to reduce or eliminate these costs, but to increase productivity and therefore revenues.
The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors has published over 20 separate case studies in a paper titled “The Human Connection”, available via its website at http://www.ergonomics.org.uk/the-human-connection-document/
A selection of these case studies illustrate the concrete benefits to business in adopting better ergonomic design principles, not only from a health perspective, but in terms of efficiency, productivity and reduced cost. Examples include:
- The implementation of an ergonomically designed simulator to train tram drivers, which resulted in a 50% reduction of total training time.
- Better manual sorting processes implemented by the Royal Mail, resulting in by a reduction of sorting time of around 25 minutes for every 1000 parcels.
- Reducing manual lifting of heavy components on the production line of a leading global water technology company, creating a 10% increase in throughput.
- Standardisation of ambulance design across the NHS to create a more efficient workspace, giving financial savings of £2.5 million over three years.
- Increased automation, tailored ergonomic training and better job rotation at a large furniture manufacturer, resulting in a £60,000 per annum reduction in insurance premiums.
NHS Health at Work provides occupational health services to businesses, and gives five key benefits of early intervention into workplace health issues:
- Reducing levels of absence
- Reducing the cost of absences
- Improving productivity and decreasing disruption
- Greater engagement and motivation of employees
- Enabling employees to return to work sooner
Summary: Good Ergonomic Design = More Revenue
It is clear then that the benefits to business of ensuring adequate provision for good ergonomic design in the workplace extend beyond employee satisfaction and well being and directly impact revenues. Fewer lost workdays, lower insurance and compensation costs, and lower medical expenses are directly related to increased engagement, lower error rates, and higher productivity. Overall, the available data shows an encouraging pattern, with total costs and lost workdays reducing significantly over the last decade.
Looking to the future, one phenomenon which may affect this trend is the growing popularity of flexible and home working replacing traditional full time office work. With a dispersed workforce often working in their own home environment, it will become more challenging for employers to ensure safe and healthy working practices. Research on this specific case has not yet been published, but it seems like a key area to address if businesses are to continue to reduce the negative effects of ergonomic related health issues, and benefit from the associated gains in productivity and revenue.