On December 2019, Twitter and Facebook were flush with posts about a downward tilted toilet — purportedly designed to be unbearable to sit upon for more than five minutes — installed by employers to discourage lengthy bathroom breaks:
Tens of thousands of people tweeted the image above of a tilted toilet alongside a diagram of the purported thirteen-degree “sitting angle” designed to cause discomfort to workers after a few minutes.
The tweet read:
BREAKING NEWS: Say goodbye to comfort breaks! New downward-tilting toilets are designed to become unbearable to sit on after five minutes. They say the main benefit is to employees in improved employee productivity.
This left us with more questions than answers. Who were “they?” Where were these fiendish tilting toilets, and who decided this was a good idea? What about disability accommodations and where were those? And where did this story come from?
One iteration came from the British tabloid Daily Mail, whose headline blared:
Say goodbye to comfort breaks! New downward-tilting toilets are designed to become unbearable to sit on after five minutes
• The ‘StandardToilet’ has an ‘inconveniently sloped’ seat at a 13 degree angle
• This will make it uncomfortable to spend more than five minutes on the toilet
• Developers say this provides some health benefits including improved posture
• They say the main benefit is to employees in improved employee productivity
That article began describing interest in the toilet from “local councils and motorway service stations”:
An extended office bathroom break could be a thing of the past thanks to a new toilet that developers say will make people want to leave the loo after five minutes.
The ‘StandardToilet’, created by a start-up company of the same name, has been backed by the British Toilet Association (BTA), a group that campaigns for better bathroom facilities in offices and public spaces.
The seat is sloped forward by about 13 degrees to increase strain on the legs similar to a gentle squat thrust, according to developer Mahabir Gill from StandardToilet.
The Staffordshire based company says it has already had interest from local councils and motorway service stations for the £150 — £500 toilet.
Immediately thereafter, the article quoted StandardToilet’s Gill about employee bathroom breaks, and said that “their sloped solution would help to reduce employees social media use and improve productivity by cutting down on toilet time.” However, that portion was framed as a selling point designed by the company, not necessarily an interest shown by companies:
They hope to also target offices as they believe cutting down on the length of employee bathroom breaks would dramatically improve productivity.
‘It is estimated that in the United Kingdom alone, extended employee breaks costs industry and commerce an £4 billion per annum’, Mr Gill said.
From there, the article went into anecdotes about bathroom rates and marketing surveys, but with no additional information about any companies actually installing or seeking out tilted toilets to cut down on time spent on them by employees.
The New York Post‘s coverage similarly focused on Gill’s claims, not employer interest in tilted toilets:
Still, the primary purpose is to promote brief relief, cutting down the time workers spend on their phones and reducing monetary losses.
“It’s main benefit is to the employers, not the employees,” Gill admitted. “It saves the employer money.”
Wired‘s coverage was a bit more robust, but also more philosophical, with the headline, “The corporate poo patrol is coming after your precious toilet time.” It asked whether this could be considered “policing your pooing a step too far,” and talked to design experts about the concept in the context of workers’ rights:
“In an office, the one space you have where you can find privacy is often the toilet,” says Jennifer Kaufmann-Buhler, assistant professor of design history at Purdue University in Indiana. “So, god forbid that we want to make the one place where workers should have at least some autonomy — the toilet — another place where people impose the very capitalist idea that people should always be working.”
“Too often, design disregards low-level workers,” says Kaufmann-Buhler. “Designers are not interested in the plight of the worker who’s spending their day answering phone calls. They’re only interested in the workers with full-time jobs and who get the elaborate office spaces.”
Another expert consulted for the piece, Dr. Charlotte Jones, also commented on the viral claims:
There were reports earlier in the year of Amazon workers, for example, who don’t have time to go to the toilet on shift, so they have to urinate in plastic bottles. It doesn’t surprise me that design begins to mirror and reinforce these poor working conditions.
The site TreeHugger weighed the supposed intrusion of capitalism on bathroom breaks against optimal ways for people to do their business, essentially finding the former unpalatable but finding merit in the latter:
Everyone is calling the Standard Toilet evil, a tool of “evil jerks who are trying to take away your precious bathroom time by rolling out slanted toilets that force you to dump faster at work.” Perhaps your bosses do want you to take less time, but so does your body … The Standard Toilet inventor is going to sell a lot more toilets and get a lot more exposure by framing it as a way of increasing employee efficiency and reducing queuing; and frankly, just raising the back to get the tilt is not the way to be doing this.
As the viral controversy unfolded, myriad thinkpieces and outrage-baiting articles parroted Gill’s claims that he designed a tilting toilet in part to save employers money due to bathroom break time theft. If the company wished for their slightly sloped toilet to become viral news, the angle used was exceedingly efficient (unlike tweeting from the toilet during a break, evidently.)
Finally, we visited StandardToilet’s website, which as of December 18 2019, featured very little information for any bosses interested in a tilted toilet. Its second page, under the “Application” tab, focused largely on the supposed health benefits of sloped toilets. Some of it involved shorter sitting time, but it also offered up an alarming-sounding side effect of traditional toilets :
*Medical studies have suggested that using the traditional WC can cause swollen haemorrhoids and weakening of pelvic muscles[.]
A very concise “Business Case” page had to do with bathroom time and overall productivity. Although the site included specifications for StandardToilet models, a patent application, and a contact form, we were unable to find any information on how someone might acquire one of their tilted toilets — there were no examples of the toilets existing or being used anywhere, despite the virality of stories suggesting the commodes were a new employer trend.
On December 17 2019, a handful of articles about a downward tilted toilet supposedly sold by StandardToilet made a huge splash on social media. All of those articles were based on statements made to the media by one man (Mahabir Gill), and others commenting on various angles of the claim. What was missing was any indication the toilets yet existed, were in use, or that employers expressed interest in installing them to make employees poop faster. In short, the claims were wildly decontextualized in order to optimize viral attention, and it worked.