The upright position turns workers into lightning rods for empathy and distractions
As workers have become more tethered to their computers and desks, ergonomists have repeatedly warned that stationary, repetitive action can be bad for our physical health and emotional well-being. In the wake of these repeated warnings, many of us have found variations on standing desks popping up around offices.
The logic behind them is simple and sound enough. Rather than spending your whole day sitting and compressed, you can raise your computer or work surface up to standing height, relieving the strains of sitting, getting you up on your feet. Much has been made about how the shift from sitting to standing can improve your focus, either from the benefits of standing and engaging your body, or possibly just from the gentle “shock” your body gets from changing positions to keep alert.
While few will argue with the health benefits of switching things up to battle lethargy and even obesity, the relationship between our attention span and standing desks is one that’s much harder to parse, all thanks to evolution.
As humans evolved into the social beings of today, we developed an incredibly keen sense of empathy. The degree to which we are attuned to empathy varies, depending on the circumstances and the setting. For instance, walking down a crowded street full of strangers, we dial down our recognition and responses to other people.
However, in more comfortable and familiar settings, we dial the empathy up. Empathy can certainly be a virtue, but it’s also one of the biggest distractions a person can encounter. When a worker is seated in a cubicle—face buried in a screen or in documents—the empathy level at play is moot, since you’re largely insulated from stimuli and other people.
A standing desk strips any insulation you may have, turning you into a figurative antenna for everything that goes on around you. Your width and depth of vision increase exponentially (whether you realize it or not), and your empathy meter kicks back in, compelling you to take in and process the various emotions and goings-on around you.
A degree of stimulation and empathy can keep a worker alert and energized, but taking in the micro expressions of an entire office, you’re likely to shift focus time and again. “There’s a reason cubicle partitions exist, as they literally embody an emotive wall, blocking you from your colleagues’ emotional displays and subsequent distraction,” psychologist Mary Lamia told Quartz.
Fortunately, even though standing desks tear down your innate empathic wall, you can build it back up easily enough. You can create physical barriers that narrow your field of vision. Yup, you can use cubicle walls to effectively act like horse blinders to ensure your attention doesn’t stray from the task at hand. Failing that, you can move to a more remote section of an office, or just face a wall or a window.
The science shows that standing desks are, in general, good for you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t create their own set of problems. In addition to the hindrances on focus, they’ve also turned into a running punchline about the petty smugness that can manifest in the office. Turning toward a wall might not keep people from snickering, but it might keep you from realizing they are, which could help your focus.
You might want to tread lightly on social media, too: