Reclining workstation ergonomics lean toward the “comfort” side of the classic ergonomic goal of balancing productivity and comfort.
There is no doubt that a reclining workstation will keep you comfortable as you work. The “astronaut” position is a classic recovery posture for people suffering from low-back pain, neck pain, and other orthopedic conditions.
But comfort is only half of the ergonomic equation. The other is productivity. You’ll have to deal with at least two productivity challenges with these workstations.
Ergonomic Challenges with Reclining Workstations
First, the logistics of managing peripherals like a keyboard and mouse get complicated after you recline more than a few degrees. The makers of these workstations have come up with a number of clever ways (magnets, textured surfaces, etc.) to keep your keyboard and mouse in place on your work surface. But once they are secured from sliding or falling, you still have to operate them, and that can be a challenge when you have to reach up rather than just letting your arms rest on your desktop. The one research study (Haynes 2009) I can find on this subject found that the “slowest typing speeds occurred in the fully reclined and zero gravity working postures.”
Second, for many people, reclining is cue for relaxation, napping, or sleep. There’s not a lot of research available on this topic, so I consulted the scientist who probably knows more about this area than anyone: Joan Vernikos, the former head of Life Sciences at NASA. She and her colleagues conducted dozens of studies with subjects who reclined to mimic the weightlessness of space.
Vernikos says that changing to a reclining position at work “cannot be too good for motivation. After all taking a book to bed is intended to be soporific. I cannot find anything specific in the bed rest literature but having been around such volunteers they soon lose interest and motivation.”
I have also been unable to find any research studies that support this very plausible hypothesis, but I did find one that looked at attitude formation in a reclining position. In their paper,”The Effects of Upright and Slumped Postures on the Recall of Positive and Negative Thoughts,” Vietta E. Wilson and Erik Peper found that “positive thoughts are easier to produce in an upright position.” In a much earlier (1981) paper on the “Effects of Recipient Posture on Persuasion,” Martin Heesacker and Richard E. Petty found that their subjects were more easily persuaded when in a reclining position. These studies both looked at very specific criteria, so it’s hard to draw any conclusions about productivity from them. Still. they offer an intriguing entry point for further research.
You Are Perceived As Less Powerful in a Reclining Position
Vernikos says, too, “It also makes a difference to how others see them and respond to them. We had to train our staff not to treat our superbly healthy volunteers as patients/sick people.”
This observation resonates with Dana Carney and Amy Cuddy’s research on posture and perception. They have shown that you both feel more powerful and are perceived as more powerful when you adopt “power poses.” The converse is true as well, so adopting a “weak” pose like a supine reclining position may not help you wield power at work.
Still. . .
Still, if you need the relief that this very comfortable position gives you, the simple ability to work at all may trump those other productivity considerations.
If you know of other research in this area, I hope you’ll share it with me.