Can Standing Desks Make For Happier Workplaces?

This blog post was guest-written by Industrial/Organizational Psychologist, Brodie Gregory, .

Cognitive dissonance occurs when our actions are inconsistent with our attitudes or beliefs. This morning I had a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance when I started writing this blog post sitting down. Needless to say, I quickly shifted to my standing desk to avoid cognitive dissonance and not feel like a hypocrite! I started using a standing desk about a year and a half ago. I use it probably half of the day, and find that my energy level is higher, I’m more focused and engaged, and have stopped having really sore and stiff IT bands at the end of the day.

I’m an Industrial/Organizational (I/O) Psychologist, which means that I study and work with all things people in the workplace – hiring the right person for a job, managing talent and performance, developing and training leaders and employees to have the skills and experiences they need, and so on. One question that has been deemed the “holy grail” of I/O psychology is whether or not happier workers are more productive workers. That question is more complicated to answer than you might guess, and – as with so many other things in psychology – the answer is “it depends.” However, recent research has shown one way to increase employee productivity by up to 10%: using a standing desk or treadmill desk.  In their February 2014 article, researchers Avner Ben-Ner, Darla Hamann, Gabriel Koepp, Chimnay Manohar, and James Levine reported that employees who participated in a year-long  study using standing or treadmill desks results had higher quality and quantity of performance and improved interactions with coworkers.

Organizations that offer wellness benefits to employees, such as access to a standing or treadmill desk, enjoy a number of positive outcomes, such as lower turnover.  A 2008 Corporate Leadership Council (CLC) study found that employee intentions to stay with their current employer were 33% higher in organizations that offered desirable work/life or wellness programs. Companies lose billions of dollars annually in employee turnover – with costs stemming from the lost knowledge, experience, and productivity that walk out the door with the lost employee, to recruiting, hiring, and training a replacement hire. Effective work/life or wellness programs have been linked to other financial benefits, such as decreased absenteeism (absenteeism due to illness costs US organizations over $150 billion annually!), higher market value (Watson Wyatt Human Capital Index), and hundreds of dollars per employee in reduced health care costs (Work Family Connection). Given that a recent survey from the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations found that 42% of employers consider health care costs the biggest threat to their bottom line, now is a critical time for organizations to take action on their work/life and wellness offerings.

Many organizations offer education and awareness programs, such as websites, on-site health screenings, and participation incentives. Though education and awareness are important, research shows that the real challenges to behavior change are time and access to the right tools. Forty percent of employees indicate that time is the biggest barrier they face to getting enough physical activity, and 80% of employees indicate that they want access to an on-site fitness center.

When I worked for Procter and Gamble, I had the unique opportunity to participate in a program called Corporate Athlete. The concept of a corporate athlete, coined by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, suggests that people can’t truly achieve their best performance without attending to their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. Sitting sedentary for 8-12 hours per day not only undermines physical well-being, but puts a ceiling on morale, focus, and engagement. Levels of physical “activation” that are too low lead to boredom and a reduced capacity for focused attention – a mental state that is just as unproductive as physical activation that is too high (anxiety, an inability to quiet distractions).

In short, the direct effect of using a standing or treadmill desk is obvious: more physical activity and less time spent being sedentary.  The indirect effects, however, are not always obvious or tangible, but they are extensive – benefiting not just the individual employee, but the organization as a whole. Individual employees with access to the right wellness tools are more engaged, more focused, more physically and mentally present, more committed, and more engaged, and organizations reap downstream financial benefits of all of these.

Brodie Bio & Contact info:

Dr. Brodie Gregory is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and Senior Consultant with PDRI, a CEB Company, in their Arlington, VA office, where her work focuses on leadership and employee development, motivation, and performance management. Prior to joining PDRI, Brodie was a Manager of Global Leadership Development with Procter and Gamble. Her research has appeared in a number of publications, including Consulting Psychology: Practice & Research, Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Research and Practice, and The Journal of Organizational Behavior. Brodie has a BA in psychology from Washington & Lee University and a MA and PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from The University of Akron. She can be reached at or 703.650.1960.


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