Ergonomics has been a buzzword for more than twenty years, but are you applying it in your own work life? Improving ergonomics in your office can lead to increased productivity and improved health. In an ideal world, we would all be working jobs that allow us to get a perfect balance of mental stimulation and physical activity, but alas, this is not an ideal world. More and more of us are working in highly sedentary office jobs. If this is the case for you, I challenge you to evaluate your workstation. This is a place you spend well over half of your waking life, and it is worth some investment.
Several options exist for improving your workstation. They range from minor adjustments to an active workstation where you walk or pedal while performing office work. PROPER WORKSTATION SETUP Be wary of products labeled “ergonomic.” The real key to ergonomics is adjustability and usability. Even if a chair or desk has every possible adjustment, if it isn’t easy to adjust, we won’t do it. Whenever possible, test out the product before you purchase anything.
If you are involved in purchasing products for other employees at your workplace, make sure you get their input and do your best to accommodate reasonable requests. There is no perfect chair or desk. One size does not fit all, and by taking employees’ requests or suggestions seriously, you increase their feelings of ownership in their job. That alone can increase job satisfaction and lead to lower injury rates.
For both a strictly seated workstation and the alternative sit-stand station, one of the best and cheapest things you can do is adjust your chair. Here are some key aspects of proper seat adjustment:
Knees are at a 90 degree angle. If you can’t get high enough, try a seat pad or place a thick towel in the seat. If you can’t get low enough, try a big, sturdy book or foot stool for under your feet (make sure your feet are flat and fully supported).
The seat pan is back far enough that it doesn’t press in behind your knees. If this isn’t possible with adjustments, then place a seat back pad or thick towel on the back to push you forward a bit. I must admit I don’t yet have a solution for the seat pan being too shallow, other than to get a new chair.
Your lumbar spine is supported. If there is no adjustment for this, try a rolled towel or travel pillow.
You can also reorganize your desk to improve ergonomics:
Place all the things you use most often within easy reach. These include keyboard, mouse, notepad, and phone. Make sure the positioning of your keyboard and mouse enable you to maintain a neutral wrist position.
Your monitor(s) should be properly placed—no less than 20 inches away from your eyes. The optimum maximum distance can vary greatly from person to person, but generally your monitor should be no more than 40 inches away. There is no real set number, so deviating from this recommendation will not send you off of a proverbial ergonomics cliff. Try some different distances, and do what feels most comfortable for you. The monitor should be directly in front of you, below the horizontal line of sight, and tilted slightly back so that the top of the monitor is slightly farther away from your eyes than the base, so that your neck is angled slightly down.
If you use two monitors equally, place them so that the monitors meet directly in front of you at an angle of about 120 degrees. If one is a primary monitor, position it based on the instructions above, and then set the secondary monitor at about a 30 degree angle to the left or right. Consider alternating its placement from one side to the other. If possible, position the second monitor to avoid glare (perpendicular to any window); if that isn’t an option, utilize your blinds or try Mylar film on the windows.
PROMOTING MOVEMENT Prolonged sitting has been associated with several health problems including obesity, increased risk of heart disease, and high blood pressure. Our body’s metabolic processes slow down when we’re seated. The solution is more overall movement. Movement reminder software is a great way to promote movement and may be equally as beneficial as an alternative workstation.
The most cost-effective way to improve your overall ergonomics is to make sure you are maintaining a neutral posture while still making an effort to adjust your posture at least every 15 minutes, and to stand up at least once every two hours. Decide to stand for every phone call, or stand while you eat lunch. If you have a regular meeting with a colleague, and you’re both interested in improving ergonomics and health, try having the meeting outside or while walking around the office instead of in a conference room. Even short amounts of leisurely walking can have a profound effect on mood and stimulate brain activity. Place the printer in the hallway, and when possible, engage with your coworkers face to face instead of through e-mail. A small amount of increased human contact can also greatly improve mood and your overall sense of well-being, which in turn will make you more productive.
Take frequent short breaks to look away from the monitor. I like the 20-20-20 rule: for every 20 minutes spent focused on your monitor, take 20 seconds to look at least 20 feet away. Headaches, vision damage, and mental fatigue can result if you don’t take time to look away from your monitor.
Advice for Improving Office Ergonomics
BY STEPHANIE LYNCH
SIT-STAND WORKSTATION A relatively expensive option is a sit-stand workstation equipped with an anti-fatigue mat and highly (but easily) adjustable chair. Make sure to try the chair and mat together before committing to either. This can be tricky: the surface of the mat is not the best for most office chairs.
Alternating between sitting and standing will increase energy, raise your awareness of your body, and get your blood pumping, making your mind more alert. Standing for portions of your day and maintaining a good posture when either sitting or standing will strengthen your core and reduce back pain (or prevent it if you’ve been lucky enough to avoid it). The most important aspect of this is the posture: sitting or standing with poor posture will lead to problems.
I am a firm believer that the next position is the best position. There is no perfect posture, and regular, even frequent, shifting prevents you from placing constant pressure on certain spots. Alternating between sitting and standing automatically shifts pressure points.
You might need some time to adjust to an alternating sit-stand schedule if you aren’t used to it. It might even be uncomfortable at first. Start by standing 30 minutes for every two hours spent sitting. Slowly increase the time you spend standing until you can spend equal time sitting and standing, alternating at least every two hours. Don’t forget that spending half your day standing will significantly change your perceived or actual tolerance of some shoes. If possible, wear cushioned, comfortable shoes to work (this advice applies whether you have a sit-stand workstation or not: bad shoes can cause all sorts of problems). The alternative is to leave a pair of comfortable shoes at work and switch out whenever possible. ACTIVE WORKSTATION One of the newest ideas in ergonomic workstations is an active workstation that comes with either a treadmill or sitting bike option. An active workstation may not be appropriate for precision work, and speed selection is critical to maintaining a comparable level of performance.
An active workstation is not something you can just jump right into. You will need to discuss this option with your healthcare provider, and you will have to be willing to deal with at least a few stares. Walking or cycling workstations clearly address some issues of work inactivity in our sedentary workforce. They promote physical activity and can facilitate weight loss, but it is important to remember that an active workstation is not a replacement for regular exercise. Physical activity does stimulate your brain, so it is possible an active workstation could increase productivity and improve the quality of your work. The real benefit is that it prevents the static loading of muscles created by sitting, it will get your blood pumping, and it can help you be more alert.
As I sit at my desk, I sometimes find it hard to convince myself to stand up again. But it’s less difficult to continue walking or pedaling once I’ve started. Users of active workstations still need to make sure they keep their body in a neutral position and mind their posture. Slouching on the bike or leaning forward while walking can cause discomfort or pain.
Active workstations are pricey and still in their infancy, but general findings show a positive effect on several health markers and increased energy expenditure. If an active workstation is an option for you, make sure to take breaks and never overdo it. One way to address concerns about price is to share the workstation among staff across departments, which spreads out the costs (and the benefits, too). I can’t imagine walking or pedaling all day, so the idea of a shared station seems much more palatable. PRESSURE POINTS Whether you have a traditional workstation or a newer one, be sure to make use of a dedicated ergonomist if you have access to one. Ergonomists are trained to maximize productivity and reduce worker fatigue and discomfort by evaluating your workstation and any equipment you work with. Who doesn’t want to feel more comfortable and less tired, all while doing better work? You should also take advantage of their expertise because making changes to your workstation can have detrimental effects if you don’t ensure you are doing it correctly.
If you don’t have a dedicated ergonomist, many sites provide online training, ergonomics literature, and videos that can guide you on your path to better office ergonomics. Pick a reputable site or resource and dive in.
Whatever you choose to do, remember that there is no perfect posture and that the next position is the best position. Make an effort to shift your position slightly in your chair to change any pressure points. It will eventually become habit. STEPHANIE LYNCH, MPH, MISE, is a doctoral student and graduate research assistant at Auburn University studying occupational safety, ergonomics, and injury prevention. She can be reached at email@example.com or (205) 613-5276.
OSHA: Computer Workstations eTool.
Alternating between sitting and standing will increase energy, raise your awareness of your body, and get your blood pumping, making your mind more alert.
The Next Position