Diversity & Inclusion

Workstations and Working Out: Can They Coexist?

Most likely, while reading this article, you’re sitting in front of a computer, and more than likely, you’ve been positioned in the same spot for more than several minutes. A 2013 Ergotron survey found that Americans spend 13 hours of each day sitting. Combined with an average eight hours of sleep, that amounts to 21 hours of sitting or lying down. Unfortunately, an array of problems can arise from sitting too long. Because so much of the sitting happens at work, there are things you can do to help employees deal with the situation and improve their health.

Introducing ‘Sitting Disease’

In 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that across all civilian jobs, workers spend an average of 39 percent of the workday sitting. However, the rate can increase to between 75 and 90 percent for occupations that involve working at computers or workstations, including HR managers, lawyers, accountants, and software developers. We sit at our desks while working, sit when eating meals, sit in our cars during our commutes, and lie down while sleeping. Our bodies of course use less energy to sit than to walk or stand.

Research shows that long periods of physical inactivity, including sitting, raise the risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, excess body fat around the waist, obesity, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Further, studies have found that those who sit for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity have similar risks of death as people who suffer from obesity or smoke.

Enter “sitting disease” or a “sedentary lifestyle.” The terms refer to the array of health problems that can result from sitting for long periods of time. Unfortunately, research indicates that regular or intense workouts won’t necessarily negate the problems that arise from sitting disease. Further, there is limited research to support the notion that some periods of idle standing will combat the effects.

Regardless, employers and employees find themselves facing new hurdles as the nature of their daily tasks increasingly requires extended periods of working at computers and workstations. Headlines like “sitting is the new smoking” are sweeping the Internet. Employers may not be able to do away with computers or workstations, for now, but is “sitting” required? If not, can an employee stand and work at her workstation? Further, can she simultaneously walk and work at her workstation? If sitting is required, must she sit in a chair? If she must sit in a chair, can she move her legs under the desk while sitting?

Workstation Modifications Could Help

Interestingly, the fitness and office industries have come together to create ways for employees to work and work out at the same time. Here are examples:

  • Probably the least controversial of the so-called “workstation modifications” are standing desks, which are simply props that elevate your workstation and require you to stand to access it.
  • Sit-to-stand desks are a type of standing desk that can move up or down depending on your preference.
  • Wellness balls are similar to stability balls (inflated balls on which you can perform core and strength exercises) but are used in lieu of an office chair.
  • Treadmill desks elevate your workstation above a moving platform.
  • Under-desk elliptical machines contain only the pedal portion (and not the arm portion) of an elliptical machine and are operated by pushing the pedals.

Weighing Employers’ Legal Obligations

While workstation modifications could produce health benefits for employees, are you as the employer legally required to make the adjustments? Whether you’re required to provide a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) depends on the reason for which the adjustments are being sought. You must first determine whether an employee has made such a request. And, remember, there is no need for the individual to mention the terms “ADA” or “reasonable accommodation.”

If the employee is simply health-conscious and mentions that a treadmill desk would allow her to get in her “steps” while billing hours, she likely has not requested an accommodation, and the interactive process isn’t required. If she suggests, however, that using a standing desk could alleviate a physical condition, she may be seeking a reasonable accommodation, and you should engage in the ADA’s interactive process with her.

During the process, you can consider a variety of factors, including the nature and cost of the proposed accommodation, the company’s financial resources, the nature of your operations, and the proposal’s impact on coworkers. Further, you aren’t required to provide the accommodation the employee wants—you may select from all the reasonable options as long as the chosen one is effective. Therefore, you could alternatively offer to let the employee use a less expensive or intrusive option such as a wellness ball.

Morale Booster for Health-Conscious Employees

For health-conscious employees, you may be under no legal requirement to offer an accommodation, but providing them with a workstation modification, even unpaid, can increase employee morale. Exercise has been proven to reduce stress and improve mood. An under-desk elliptical or treadmill desk could facilitate exercise and lead to a happier employee.

Be aware, however, that bringing exercise equipment into your workplace could implicate the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). Although the OSH Act doesn’t explicitly regulate exercise equipment in workplaces that aren’t fitness facilities, its general duty clause requires you to ensure that your place of employment is “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious harm.”

Employers seeking to boost morale but incur less risk may look to wellness activities designed to get employees moving. Although there is limited research on the health benefits of idle standing at standing desks, there is a plethora of research on the positive outcomes associated with movement.

Bottom Line

While workstation modifications are likely here to stay, you should remain vigilant because employees’ requests for the changes may trigger legal obligations.

Destiny Washington focuses her practice at FordHarrison’s Atlanta office on the representation of employers in labor and employment law matters. Her experience representing an international union and state and local government entities, including law enforcement agencies and school districts, gives her a unique perspective in her advice and representation. A former military print journalist, she has proudly served her country and is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Louisiana Army National Guard. Find her on LinkedIn here.

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