In 2013, the American Medical Association adopted a policy against sedentary behavior and encouraged employers to offer their employees fitness balls and standing workstations in order to promote a healthier work environment. Many employers across the country embraced this trend and allowed employees to alter their workstations by using standing or sit-stand desks. According to a 2017 survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, standing desks are the fastest-growing benefits trend.
Despite the studies showing that sedentary behavior is bad for our health, there is limited research to support the standing desk movement. According to one cancer researcher, “Research to understand the role of sitting time or standing is still in its infancy,” and “[w]e still don’t fully understand how much sitting is ‘safe’ or what you need to replace it with to achieve maximum health benefits.” In addition, other studies have shown that standing all day can lead to different 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.
Moreover, research has also shown that the human brain performs certain tasks better while sitting, rather than standing. 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.
When Is a Request for a Standing Desk a Request for an Accommodation?
There are no magic words an employee must use in asking for an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act or related state laws. When an employee requests a standing or sit-stand desk, the employer will want to consider whether the employee has made a request for an accommodation, triggering the employer’s obligation to participate in the interactive process.
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. A request such as this would not indicate to the employer that the employee suffers from a physical or mental condition and needs an accommodation to perform the essential job functions of his or her position. In this type of case, whether to provide the sit-stand desk is likely within the employer’s discretion. 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. 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, an employee who notifies his or her employer that he or she (or his or her healthcare provider) believes a standing or sit-stand desk is needed to address a specific health problem, such as chronic back pain, likely has made a request for an accommodation. If so, the employer would be obligated to engage in the interactive process with the employee. This could include requesting information from the employee or the healthcare provider explaining precisely what accommodations are necessary (standing for long periods of time, alternating between sitting and standing, etc.) 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.
Can the Employer Provide a Reasonable Accommodation Without Undue Hardship?
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. There are numerous factors the employer may want 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.
For many employers, the cost of providing the requested accommodation will not be significant enough to constitute undue hardship. The costs of standing or sit-stand desks vary widely, and some models can be purchased for under $300.
The bigger question for many employers is whether the modified workstation would hinder the employee’s ability to perform certain job functions. 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. This is particularly true in the case of an employee whose job requires concentration and focus or regular use of fine motor skills.
Often, 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 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—with the caveat that its effectiveness will be reviewed on a regular basis. The employer may want to check in regularly to ensure that the employee’s productivity and accuracy continue to meet the company’s requirements for his or her position. 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. When it does not, then the employer may be justified in exploring other accommodations as part of the interactive process.
A possible alternative solution may to be allow the employee to take frequent, brief standing and walking breaks throughout the day. Studies show that actual movement, as opposed to simply replacing sitting with standing, is likely to have more long-term beneficial effects, without causing the collateral harm to the back, legs, and feet that comes with prolonged standing.
The standing desk trend is not likely to disappear in the near future. As employees across the United States become more aware of the health problems that accompany a sedentary lifestyle and seek to make changes, employers will continue to receive requests for modified workstations. Whether these requests constitute requests for an accommodation under disability discrimination laws and whether they constitute reasonable requests depends largely on the employee’s job and the employer’s workplace. 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.