Treadmill desks are just what they sound like: workstations that are built so that employees can walk on a treadmill while working. Treadmill desks and their distant cousin, cycling desks, are both part of a new trend that might help workers who are typically sedentary. The logic is that using these “active workstations” will allow employees to engage in more physical activity over the course of a day. Due to the modern epidemic of obesity, and its associated costs to employers in terms of healthcare and missed-work due to illness, active workstations might allow those with desk jobs to stay more physically fit.
While past research has shown that people who use active workstations do engage in more physical activity over the course of a day, how else can they affect employees? New research (Sliter & Yuan, 2015) investigates the effects of active workstations on factors such as productivity and stress.
ACTIVE VERSUS INACTIVE WORKSTATIONS
The researchers conducted a study that randomly assigned participants to different situations. Some worked while sitting, others while standing, others while walking on a treadmill, and others while cycling. The workstations were set up using state-of-the-art equipment designed for this very purpose. Then, the researchers tracked the employees as they completed various work tasks. How did the participants do?
Results show that walking stations had clear advantages over employees who sat or stood. Users of the treadmill desks had higher levels of job satisfaction, more arousal (meaning the kind of mental alertness that can be good for getting work done), experienced less boredom, and reported lower levels of stress. This all makes sense, of course. But did the participants only feel good because they got to exercise instead of focusing on their jobs? Amazingly, this was clearly not the case. The participants experienced all of these advantages without a loss of job productivity. Their work was just as good as the standing or sitting participants.
Unfortunately, results didn’t look quite as good for the cycling employees. These employees were given a mechanism that allowed them to pedal while sitting at their desks. While they did experience higher levels of arousal and less boredom, they did not experience the expected drop in stress, and actually experienced a decrease in satisfaction. The biggest problem was that they also experienced a drop in performance compared to those who simply stood, and a slight (but non-significant) drop in performance compared to those who sat.
IMPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
Organizations are always looking for ways to cut costs. Unfortunately, the sedentary nature of so many modern workplaces has also raised costs due to obesity and other health related problems. If organizations can create a way for employees to become healthier while doing their jobs, positive outcomes abound. This study shows that treadmill desks may accomplish this, and also provide needed psychological benefits to employees, such as reduced stress and increased satisfaction. Another key contribution of this study is that this can all be done without a loss of job productivity.
It should be noted that this kind of equipment is not intended to be used throughout the workday. In the study, participants used the active workstations for only 35 minutes. In conjunction with their high cost, the authors suggest that organizations think twice before outfitting each employee with a treadmill desk. Instead, one treadmill desk could be used by many different employees over the course of a day, still providing many of the same advantages to those who use it.
Sliter, M., & Yuan, Z. (2015). Workout at work: Laboratory test of psychological and performance outcomes of active workstations. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 20(2), 259–271.