To Ball, or Not to Ball?

Office workers often experience physical pain
There is no need for office workers to be uncomfortable

During my nearly 30-years as a practicing Ergonomist, I have performed thousands and thousands of office workstation assessments and encountered many unique, interesting, and frustrating situations.

I was an undergraduate student in Industrial Engineering when the “kneeling chair” became popular.  The problem with it was that due to the position of the lower legs being nearly parallel to the thighs, the user would inevitably experience reduced blood circulation in the lower legs, among other possible  maladies.

In the last several years, I have seen numerous “Exercise Balls” being introduced to the office work environment as a primary “seating device” for an office-based employee (usually by the employee.)

Please note the emphasis on the term “Exercise.”

Exercise balls were developed to help people regain core body muscle strength after (usually) a sports-related injury.  They are for exercise.  Nowhere have I found in any scientific literature, nor in conversations with leading researchers in the field of office ergonomics and sitting and standing, that it would be appropriate to recommend an “Exercise Ball” as a primary seating device, or to encourage their use outside of a therapeutical environment.

Exercise Balls” lack many important components of a proper seating device, and do not come close to the requirements laid out in the BIFMA Standard for office workstations.  The components they lack include

  • Limited adjustability.  Adjustability is critical to good workstation postures
  • Increased muscle activity.  Because the back is not fully supported, the upper body is in a constant “active” state.
  • Increased compression on the lower spine.  Good seated posture should allow for a person to be reclined in the chair, back resting against the backrest (and thus the chair backrest is absorbing most of the weight of the upper body.  If the back is not supported, then all the weight of the upper body is now being borne by the vertebrae and discs of the lower back.
  • Increased effort to balance. As there is no support for the upper body, the muscles of the upper and lower bodies are in a virtually constant “active” state, as mentioned before.  A person with slower reaction times may be at a greater risk for falling off the “Exercise Ball,” which could result in serious injury or death (I actually investigated an incident where someone fell out of their chair, struck their head so severely it knocked them out (in a worst-case scenario, the person could have died.)  And this was in a chair with support for the body.
  • Reduced focus on work (and lower quality and productivity).  Since a person’s brain can effectively and simultaneously perform only a limited number of things, more brain power will be focused on “staying alive” in the chair, and less brain power will be focused on work and doing a good job.

In a 2006 research article, Gregory, Dunk, and Callaghan, of the University of Waterloo in Canada stated “Prolonged sitting on a stability ball does not greaterly alter the manner in which an individual sits, yet it appears to increase the level of discomfort.”

I have found that the best way to help an employee who is hurting at work is to conduct a thorough onsite workstation evaluation and to help employees achieve optimum work postures with the appropriate tools and equpment.

An “Exercise Ballthat is being used in an office environment as a primary seating device is not an appropriate alternative to a proper chair.  It is not the answer to a problem, but rather a cry for help because someone has a problem.

Whenever I see something non-standard, whether in an office, industrial, or hospitality environment, I am seeing an employee “cry for help.”  The kinds of non-standard things include balls, kneeling chairs, foam rubber, duct tape, cardboard, bubble wrap, and tennis balls.

Not only do these makeshift “improvements” look unprofessional, they are masking an underlying problem.

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