Health and Well-being Special: The comfort zone

An increased focus on health and well-being in the workplace is raising awareness of the importance of good ergonomics and, by extension, office furniture design.

The generic dictionary definition of ergonomics is “the scientific study of people and their working conditions”. Ergonomic design within the office specifically, meanwhile, tends to focus on the furniture and equipment that staff use, with the aim to maximise their comfort and well-being.

As Eddie Baird, Director of Furniture Sales at US wholesaler SP Richards, explains: “Too often, the employee’s body has been forced to fit the office furniture provided, rather than the opposite. However, furniture is changing to make the working environment more comfortable, as well as more productive and inviting.

“Innovative products abound – from height-adjustable desks and risers, chairs you lean or ‘perch’ against, wobble boards that you swivel on while working to treadmills with work surfaces so you can walk while you work. It’s no longer just about the product, but the way that product works in cohesion with its user and the environment.”  

New design standards such as WELL Building and Fitwel (Facility Innovations Toward Wellness Environment Leadership) are now gaining acceptance and aim to ensure that organisations focus on meeting an individual’s needs in the workplace with wellness-oriented solutions. A variety of new products are being designed to meet these certification standards, with measureable aspects specifically geared towards addressing the health and comfort of the user. 

“These standards will shape the furniture sector over the next 12-18 months and beyond,” says Josh Kerst, Principal Ergonomist at US manufacturer Safco, “much like LEED certification shaped it a decade ago.”

Keep moving

In recent years, a plethora of major regional and international research has produced compelling evidence that sitting for more than four hours each day leads to enzymes responsible for burning harmful blood fats shutting down, reduced calorie burning, disrupted blood sugar levels and higher blood pressure. These in turn lead to increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, depression, musculoskeletal disorders and even dementia.

The case for raising activity levels is overwhelming and companies are now encouraging their employees to exercise more frequently, even offering incentives for walking 6,000 steps per day or going to the gym on a regular basis. Staff are being asked to stand, lean or perch rather than sit as this keeps the body active, with firms providing sit-stand workstations, adjustable desk risers and specialised seating to facilitate this.

As Kerst explains: “For many years, ergonomics research was all about eliminating discomfort in the workplace and to a very large extent this was achieved. Unfortunately, people became so comfortable they rarely moved at all. Today, we know better and furniture solutions are all about helping you stay active, burn more calories and keep you healthy while you work.”

The layout of offices is also encouraging movement, says Baird: “Shared printers not only save companies money on printing supplies and reduce waste, but they also require users to get up and walk to the printer instead of spinning around in their chair to reach it. Chair spinning does not qualify as exercise.”

Sit, stand or both?

The average person sits for more than 12 hours a day and lower back pain associated with sedentary behaviour is the number one cause of job-related disability and a top risk factor for absenteeism. 

Standing desks are fast gaining popularity and experiencing double-digit growth, with studies predicting the US market alone will grow to $2.8 billion by 2025. However, prolonged standing comes with its own list of detriments and can itself induce lower back pain in some people. Height-adjustable workstations are proving a popular middle ground. A study conducted by Stanford University found that 78% of workers with chronic lower back problems reported a pain-free day after just 15 days of using a sit-stand workstation. 

As Rik Mistry, Head of Business Development at UK retailer Sit-Stand.com, explains: “Web traffic to our websites has grown 300% in the past 12 months and Google reports suggest that the search results for ‘standing desk’ have quadrupled over the past five years. Furthermore, the wave of interest at shows and industry events for products like our Yo-Yo desk continues to escalate. 

“It’s no longer just the person with the bad back who wants an adjustable workstation, it’s now increasingly a ‘must have’ for the whole team. And when people move companies they are taking their standing-desk habit with them.”

But some studies are indicating that, once installed, these solutions are actually often grossly underused, with only 20% of staff continuing to use the standing function after eight weeks. 

As Betsey Banker, Wellness Market Manager at ergonomic product manufacturer Ergotron, says: “Ease of use plays a huge part in their adoption. People often love their new desks initially, but if it takes too long to change desk positions, human behaviour dictates that people will revert to old practices and sit down too long. Instant adjustment is essential to encourage users to change posture frequently (we recommend every 30 minutes) throughout the work day.”

Kerst suggests that a more nuanced approach is required to encourage activity: “Safco’s Active Collection provides a more complete solution, with a variety of active seats that support more movement at traditional desk heights, but which can work with programmable sit-stand desks as well. There’s also an innovative line of new, semi-standing seats and stand-biased workstations that offer the benefits of standing with all the comforts of sitting. Plus, options exist to accessorise the adjustable workstation with active products such as standing footrests, anti-fatigue mats and stand-up wobble boards.”

For companies that don’t want to or cannot afford to purchase entirely new desks for their employees, the adjustable desk riser that sits atop your existing workstation allows staff to stand at a regular desk. 

“These are in high demand,” says Banker. “They are very easy for facilities teams to install, allow for a flexible office design and give employees ultimate autonomy in managing their sitting and standing postures throughout the day. Mobile standing desks are also gaining in popularity as businesses can use them for collaborative workspaces, or as temporary workstations for remote workers and visitors.”

Take a seat

When our parents and teachers told us to “sit up straight” it seems like they were giving us good advice. Actually, today’s updated guidance is that we should both sit up and recline back slightly.

As Paul Hurty, Director of Contract Sales at the Raynor Group, manufacturers of Eurotech seating, explains: “Traditionally, we’ve been asked to sit at a 90-degree angle, but this is unrealistic and encourages slouching as your head naturally moves forward towards the task at hand. And, as mobile devices have become more prevalent, looking down at a screen is causing even more slouching and office furniture design needs to adjust.  

“A chair, for example, should allow for a slight recline and come with a head rest, a flexible back frame, seat-depth adjustment and provide flexible lower lumbar support,” he adds. “The benefits of being able to sit comfortably in this position are significant, including expanded breathing capacity which increases blood flow and oxygen throughout the body. A positive impact can be felt immediately by decreasing the fatigue people feel after sitting for even a short time in the wrong position.”

Perch seating is another option – it allows employees to keep an upright posture and helps to relieve pressure on the back and legs, while creating an open hip angle that is similar to the form the human body naturally adopts when weightless in space. This ergonomically-correct posture helps keep staff focused and engaged.

Must try harder

Of course, ergonomic design is not limited to office desks and chairs. Items such as adjustable task lighting that reduces eyestrain and soft-surface flooring solutions that lessen fatigue are common in wellness-focused packages today. 

But as President of Canadian dealer group Basics Office Products Sean Macey reports, many businesses need to go further in their efforts to provide well-designed solutions. “There is much better use of equipment such as monitor arms, risers and ergonomic mice and keyboards now, but there are still far too many products that are poorly designed and simply bought because they are cheap and cheerful. The number of unhealthy chairs sold is considerable, with firms buying based on price rather than consideration of the fact that someone has to sit in them for eight hours a day.” 

However, Kerst believes the momentum is now unstoppable: “Change is happening at a rapid pace and firms require new ways of thinking and new skills for success. As an industry, we need better tools to help clients plan and envision how their office space is being used. Increasingly intelligent systems will use workplace analytics to assess a range of metrics such as meeting space utilisation and ergonomic workstation adjustments. This will allow them to gauge the way employees interact with their workspace environment. 

“These artificial intelligence, data-driven systems will help furniture manufacturers provide multi-use products so their clients can stay active, productive and healthy in today’s flexible work environment. It’s an exciting time to be in this dynamic industry and the future looks bright for those willing to embrace change.”

Fellowes expands in wellness

In November 2017, Fellowes Brands announced the acquisition of ESI Ergonomic Solutions, a Phoenix, Arizona-based provider of ergonomic solutions that promote a healthy working environment. OPI speaks to Jeff Dryfhout, VP of Global Branding and Air Treatment at Fellowes, about the strategy behind this acquisition and the company’s involvement in the wellness sector in general.

OPI: What’s the history of Fellowes’ connection with workspace wellness? 

Jeff Dryfhout: Fellowes started off in the ergonomic accessories business, but then entered the indoor air quality market with our AeraMax air purifiers where we have experienced strong growth. The growth of workspace wellness is a movement that isn’t limited to one particular sector. It now crosses into other categories such as furniture, where the focus is on sit-stand workstations and adjustable-height desks. 

OPI: What does the ESI acquisition bring to Fellowes that you didn’t have before? 

JD: It further establishes Fellowes as an emerging player in workspace wellness. ESI principally serves the contract furniture market which nicely complements Fellowes’ strength in the business products channel. 

Both companies share the same business values, entrepreneurial spirit and focus on people which gives us great confidence about our future together.

OPI: What, in your opinion, is the motivation for firms’ increasing focus on the ergonomic aspects of their workplace?

JD: Organisations are strongly focused on a healthy work environment today, specifically the ergonomic aspects, primarily because of its benefits to both company and employee. The provision of wellness solutions helps workers achieve their best at work, while demonstrating in a tangible way that the company values and cares for them. 

Additionally, these solutions help employees stay healthier and enhance recruitment and retention. All of this saves the business money. 

OPI: Is further expansion in this sector now a major part of Fellowes’ strategic plan moving forward? 

JD: Fellowes has always been about helping people to be their best. And yes, as an emerging player in the workspace wellness movement, expansion of well-being solutions in both the business products channel and contract furniture market will continue to be a strategic focus of ours.