Social Norms Keep People From Standing at Work

With prolonged sitting being blamed as a culprit in heart disease and early death, medical professionals are increasingly pointing to standing at work as a practical step that people can take to improve their health. But what happens when an individual decides they’re going to stand in a work environment where sitting is the norm?

That’s what researchers in the UK investigated in a study published this month. In the study, 25 people volunteered to start standing at work – and not just at work, but specifically in meetings where everyone would normally be seated. Each participant chose three meetings during which they would stand for some length of time, then they reported back on their experiences.

As you might imagine, many participants felt like they were breaking an unwritten social rule when they decided to stand during meetings.

One said that “As with any social norm, as soon as you’re in a position where you might be going against it, you suddenly feel the weight of society’s expectations on you.” Another worried that she was making other people at the meeting uncomfortable.

In one case, someone offered one of the participants a seat. The participant, understandably, “felt super awkward and sat down.”

Participants also worried that by standing up they’d be perceived as challenging authority. One participant described how “If everyone’s sat down there and you’re up there, there’s, you know, almost a visual representation of a hierarchy in a weird way” and another said it felt like an awkward role reversal when she was standing and her boss was sitting.

For those who were already in a position of authority, though, standing apparently gave them a feeling of more power. One example is a participant who felt that she “probably addressed everyone and raised my voice a little, projected it a bit more than I might do … if I was seated.”

These experiences highlight how social norms keep everyone sitting, even if it’s bad for their health.

The authors propose a couple solutions to this problem. One is that people who want to stand in situations where they would typically sit can let other people know of their intentions beforehand, such as at the beginning of the meeting. Doing so can make the act of standing up less awkward and unexpected.

The other is that for people to really feel comfortable standing in a full range of workplace situations, organizational cultures will probably have to change. If workplaces change what’s expected and encourage people to stand whenever they feel it’s helpful, standing at work will start to feel more like something routine, not like an act of rulebreaking.

Image: Flickr/little birth