With more employers jumping on the standing desk bandwagon, the trend has raised questions about the benefits of this office furniture and the impact on federal disability law.
The boom in popularity of standing desks can be traced to a 2013 policy against sedentary behavior adopted by the American Medical Association that encouraged greater use of standing workstations to promote a healthier workplace. By 2018 a survey released by the Society of Human Resource Management found that standing desks are the fastest-growing benefits trend.
The practice seems to make perfect sense, and many of those who use standing desks are enthusiastic about them. However, there hasn’t been that much research into whether those positive benefits are real. Some studies also claim that standing all day can lead to different kinds of health problems over time, such as lower back pain, increased risk for varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis, numerous podiatric problems and even increased risk of heart disease.
On the other hand, research has not yet established a firm link between sitting and physical problems, or which are the best approaches to limiting their negative impact. In addition, some research shows that the human brain performs certain tasks better while sitting instead of standing, notes Erin E. Williams, an attorney with the law firm of Ogletree Deakins.
“In particular, tasks requiring fine motor skills or detailed concentration (such as writing, analyzing data and strategic thinking) are likely to be more successfully accomplished from a sitting position,” she says.
Where this lack of research supporting the benefits of standing desks becomes especially problematic for employers is when an employee asks to have one as a reasonable accommodation for a chronic physical condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act or related state laws.
“There are no magic words an employee must use in asking for an accommodation,” Williams points out. “An employee who says he or she wants a sit-stand desk for generic wellness reasons, such as a desire to be less sedentary or to lose a few pounds, likely has not made a request for an accommodation.”
Exercising Your Discretion
This kind of discretionary request for a standing desk would not communicate to the employer that the worker suffers from a physical or mental condition as defined by law and requires an accommodation to perform the essential job functions of his or her position.
In exercising that discretion, the employer can consider any number of factors, including the cost of granting the request, whether similar requests have been granted in the past, and the overall morale of its employees, Williams says. The employer would also have some flexibility in the extent to which it grants the request—perhaps providing the modified desk itself but not providing other alterations to the workstation, such as a gel floor pad to ease long periods of standing.
On the other hand, if an employee notifies the employer that he or she (or a healthcare provider) believes a standing or sit-stand desk is needed to address a specific health problem, such as chronic back pain, consider it likely that a request for an accommodation has been made. If so, the employer would be obligated to engage in an interactive process with the employee required by the ADA.
This could include requesting information from the employee or the healthcare provider explaining precisely what accommodations are necessary (such as standing for long periods of time or alternating between sitting and standing) and how they are expected to improve the employee’s ability to perform his or her essential job functions.
The employer would also want to consider whether providing the requested accommodation would pose an undue hardship, according to Williams. “This question is often more complicated than the first and requires a deeper analysis of the employee’s job and the realities of the workplace.”
Williams says there are numerous factors for the employer to consider, including:
● The cost of modifying the employee’s workstation;
● Whether it provided similar or comparable accommodations to other employees;
● The nature of the employee’s work (whether it is more rote and/or repetitive, or requires significant concentration and focus);
● How the accommodation is intended to assist the employee in performing his or her essential job functions; and
● Whether those essential job functions will suffer in other ways as a result of the accommodation.
Keep in mind that agreeing to the employee’s request may not cost enough to constitute undue hardship. The costs of standing or sit-stand desks vary widely, and some models can be purchased for under $300. Of course, there also is the issue of whether granting this request will trigger a wave of similar requests.
Making Matters Worse
The bigger question for many employers is whether the modified workstation would hinder the employee’s ability to perform certain job functions, Williams adds. This is particularly true in the case of an employee whose job requires concentration and focus or regular use of fine motor skills.
“Although modifying an employee’s desk may allow him or her to work with less pain or discomfort related to a physical condition, that same modification may make it significantly more difficult for certain employees to do their jobs,” she observes.
In many situations, whether an employee’s ability to concentrate or perform fine motor tasks is negatively impacted by standing throughout the day is something that can only be determined once the standing desk or some other alternative arrangement is put into place.
In many instances, particularly when a supporting medical recommendation has been provided, the employer will need to grant the request for a standing or sit-stand desk, but with the stated stipulation that its effectiveness will be reviewed on a regular basis.
The employer can check in regularly to make sure that the employee’s productivity and accuracy continue to meet the company’s requirements for that job. “When it does, then the employer has, often for a relatively low cost, accommodated an employee’s health condition while retaining a productive member of its workforce—a win-win,” Williams stresses. “When it does not, then the employer may be justified in exploring other accommodations as part of the interactive process.”
She also grants that other alternative accommodations may be more attractive to employers. One could be allowing the employee to take frequent, brief standing and walking breaks throughout the day. Studies show that movement, instead of simply replacing sitting with standing, is likely to offer more long-term beneficial effects, without causing collateral harm to the back, legs and feet that can arise from prolonged standing.
The standing desk trend is not likely to disappear in the near future, Williams says. “Employers may want to consider these requests with the same diligence as any other request for accommodation, and if granted, review them on an ongoing basis to ensure that they accomplish the goal of better enabling the employee to perform all of his or her essential job functions.”