It had snowed the night before we visited Healthy Home & Office, but Phil Johns and Candi Siddle were there to welcome us into a warm and happy showroom.
Keeping healthy at work is a hot topic, for right and wrong reasons. On the right side, as occupational therapists and psychologists tell us, we need to make sure our working environment supports our health and happiness. On the wrong side, the profit motive means that employers are getting wise to the downside cost of not looking after employees: they can leave, they can sue, or they can remain absent from work.
Emma Saccomani and I share many of the same interests. We are both passionately engaged in making workplaces healthier and happier places to be. Emma is a wellbeing advisor, facilitator and instructor, on a mission to help create more supportive, motivated and productive communities and workplaces. I am a counsellor and psychologist, focused on how we can make our home and working lives happier and healthier.
WHY WE VISITED PHIL AND CANDI
Emma and I meet regularly. In one of our chats, we were talking about physical aspects of the workplace – furnishings, design, that kind of thing – and how it can dramatically affect wellbeing. Emma mentioned that she had heard of a place called Healthy Home & Office, with a showroom in Surrey. So we agreed to make our next meeting there.
Phil Johns has a well-established track record in selling commercial furniture, but has increasingly taken an interest in the domestic side. This mirrors the cultural shift to working closer to home: home working in the UK has increased by approximately 20%, or a quarter of a million people, in the last decade. He has an evident passion for helping improve working environments, and we found him and Candi Siddle, as a team, a mine of inspiration.
FIRST PRINCIPLES OF HEALTHY SITTING
The first thing we noticed was that many of the chairs in the showroom opened up your body more than traditional chairs.
‘Long ago, the 90 degree hip angle was considered how to sit. But it’s not a natural posture,’ Phil explained. ‘And now, with the move from desktop to laptop to tablet, your upper body can be tilted forward, putting your whole body under stress.’
Ergonomic chairs are therefore designed to offer a more open position (with the knees falling below the hip).
MOVEMENT IS ALL
Emma and I started laughing as we tried out some of the more mobile chairs.
‘Dynamic movement is another thing that healthy chairs encourage,’ Phil pointed out.
A favourite of both mine and Emma’s was one of those kneeling chairs, that, quite literally, rocked. A Variable balans (the brand is Varier) gives you a feeling that’s playful and effortless. And we loved the loud orange of the one we tried.
It occurred to me, as a psychologist, that much of the happiness value in such furniture is in the playfulness. My knees, and my whole body, could move while sitting, and the feeling was liberating.
SADDLE YOURSELF UP
We moved on to higher chairs, and noticed that we were perched as though saddled on a horse.
‘Funny you should say that,’ said Phil, ‘because horse riding, with its natural movement, was one of the inspirations behind newer designs.’
These chairs were higher than I am used to, noticeably freeing you from that 90 degree scrunch that we all impose on ourselves. The upward arch, just like a saddle, would appeal greatly to those who already ride, I would think. It balances the weight a lot more naturally, and encourages movement.
DOES GOOD DESIGN HAVE TO COST?
Looking around the showroom, I noticed that there was a definite designer feel to ergonomic furniture. Was it for me? Was healthy living going to be just too expensive?
‘It doesn’t have to cost the earth,’ said Phil. ‘There are things you can do easily to improve your working style. For instance, many people have their computer mouse way out to the side.’
I realised I was guilty of this. Phil suggests holding a mouse closer in to a natural place for your shoulder. It helps, he said, to invest in a keyboard without a number pad, since it makes more space for the mouse. I had to accept he was right, even though, as a qualified accountant, the number pad would be a sad loss.
Phil also pointed out that a wrist rest in the traditional position supports a part of the wrist that needs no support, and prevents you from moving. I use one at work, but may try doing without one…
An object of hilarity and inspiration was the Hokki Stool (pronounced ‘hockey’). Increasingly popular in schools, these stools have a round base that means you can’t stop moving.
Physically, I can immediately see the benefits, as they encourage movement. But what stunned me was the psychological impact: I instantly became happier. I think it was the release of being able to move in all directions. It reinforced my increasing feeling that playfulness may be at the heart of the positive psychological impact of good furniture.
Phil also introduced us to a standing-height school desk with a built in moving bar for your feet. I would have died for one at school. I was that fidgeting child in class. There is old BBC TV footage of me, as a child, at the back of the class twanging a 12-inch ruler in my mouth. My backward-leaning destroyed many a plastic chair. My only psychological reservation was: would a child at a high/standing desk feel self-conscious? But I guess a choice can be given. Or the whole class can have one.
I found out from Phil that my home desk height may be too low. Height-adjustable desks have been around for over 25 years, but are getting more popular now.
Standing, though, can be a problem. If you’re trying standing at a desk, Phil suggests no more than 30 minutes at a time. ‘Standing up for hours on end can be tiring, especially if you’re not used to it. Better to mix it up a bit.’
OVERALL LESSONS LEARNED
I asked Phil for a few top tips for healthy office living. I figured that with his years of experience with ergonomics, he’d be one to ask. Here is some of his wisdom.
1. Learn to touch type. It sounds like a small change, but without that ability you are continuously looking down, which can put your neck under a lot of unhealthy pressure.
2. Get up and move, even if it’s only a few steps, every 45 minutes or so. Movement is the key to so much of healthy living, and our lifestyles are getting more sedentary.
3. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Play with your existing furniture. Apparently tiny modifications can have a great impact. Overall, keep aiming for something better than you had before.
CONSULTANCY WITH A DIFFERENCE
Phil provides an interesting service. If you send him a picture of your workspace, he will recommend any changes he feels you could benefit from. And it doesn’t always cost the earth. If the angles are wrong, even putting your laptop on top of a cardboard box can release your posture and have benefit.
You can get your own free assessment here.
His attitude reminds me of the British cycling team. Incremental improvements. Though those bikes look painful. In contrast, Phil’s suggestions are all to relieve pain.
THE MOVE TO SEDENTARY JOBS
As we wind up to leave, we chat with Phil about trends.
‘There’s been something of an 80:20 reversal over time. From mostly working outside offices, we now work mostly in them, and it’s increasing.’
I fact-checked this afterwards, and yes, in the UK and similar economies, there has been a significant withdrawal from manufacturing and goods production, and into services. Viewed over the last century, and at current trends, it looks like something close to Phil’s 80:20 reversal is on the cards.
FINAL TIPS FOR OFFICE HAPPINESS
I asked Phil which of his products he would describe as a hidden gem.
He paused for a long time. I got the feeling all of his products are his babies, and he doesn’t want to favour one. ‘A good monitor arm is really worth something,’ he said. ‘It means you’re not stuck with one head position. Your eyesight may worsen over the day, and being able to adjust distance easily can help. Same with the neck. A bit of variation can release tension. Mobility is the key.’
And from Candi, a gem of wisdom:
‘You wouldn’t get into a new car and not adjust your driving seat. So why do we put up with fixed furniture without adapting it to our needs?’
AN ANALOGY TO RELATIONSHIPS
Driving away from our meeting, I thought about what I’d learned. They might be summarised as:
1. Be open: choose an open posture: don’t let your surroundings close you up
2. Be mobile: create a flexible environment that encourages movement
3. Be playful: choose furnishings that comfortably free you, and don’t fix you for too long in one place
4. Be outspoken: seek out what works for you, and speak up for it. It’s your happiness.
All these things are true of us psychologically, and apply to our relationships. How many times do we cram ourselves into other people’s spaces, without a thought for what feels healthy for us? Until, one day, we cry: ‘I can’t do this any more!’ How much better to speak up for our mental and physical freedom a lot earlier?
I guess what a visit to Phil and Candi’s showroom taught me, was that it’s worth speaking up for the health of your body and your mind. And that requires a bit of investigation as to what works for you. If you live anywhere near Send, near Guildford, Surrey, then I’d encourage you to make a visit to Healthy Home Office. (It’s by appointment only.) You’ll get a cup of tea. And even a free mug, if you’re nice!
DID WE BUY ANYTHING?
Yes. Emma bought a chair.
Yes. They have a treadmill desk. Trying it was my favourite bit. It’s surprisingly relaxing. And I confirm it is possible to type while walking. If you don’t believe me, go try!
Emma Saccomani, director at B6Learning, is on a mission to enable workplaces to get talking about mental health, and equips teams and individuals with tools to enhance mental health and resilience.
Eddie Chauncy, counsellor and psychologist, is currently researching how changes to the physical environment of workplaces can enhance mental health and happiness.
Phil Johns and Candi Siddle welcomed us at Healthy Home Office, which offers advice and guidance on all aspects of workplace furniture, for the office or home office. They also work with referrals from specialist health practitioners. In addition, Emma and I were really impressed with their work in schools, helping to make classrooms more mobile and holistic. We are grateful to Phil and Candi for their time and energy.