How To Stay Healthy In The Office: Pay Attention To Ergonomics

How To Stay Healthy In The Office: Pay Attention To Ergonomics

Do you ever have a stiff neck tingling in your fingers or forearms, lower backache or tired eyes? If so you could be suffering from an MSD or musculoskeletal disorder, the most common of which is RSI or repetitive strain injury that many people suffer from who were not taught how to touch type. Here’s how to set up a healthy, ergonomic workspace to keep you comfortable and injury-free.

Back pains at work image from Shutterstock

Whether you work in an office or at home, designing your working environment to ensure it doesn’t damage your health is easy to achieve when you understanding how your body reacts to the technology it is using. With 35 million working days lost each year through MSDs alone, developing a healthy working environment is vitally important.

What should my perfect desk setup include?

The desk you sit at is at the heart of your workstation, and should be set up to ensure you can work efficiently and avoid MSDs. Situate your monitor so it is right in front of you. Your eyes should be level with the top of the screen that should be about an arm’s length away. If you use an ‘L’ shaped desk, try to avoid sitting so you have to twist your body to see the screen. This will avoid neck and back problems.

Where is your desk located in relation to windows? Glare on your screen can be a major cause of eyestrain. Fit a blind to diffuse the light, or move your desk so your monitor is in front of the window. Also, look at your screen? Is it too dark? Experiment with the brightness and contrast until you get an optimal image you don’t have to strain to see.

How to buy the perfect chair

Often overlooked, the chair you sit in all day has a huge impact on how healthy you will be when at your workstation. Chairs of course come in all shapes and sizes, but there are some simple rules to follow that will ensure you pick the right chair.

Sit at your desk and ensure your chair allows you to place your feet flat on the floor. If you can’t do this, invest in a footrest. This will ensure you fully support your back when sitting at your desk and don’t have to stretch into awkward positions to reach your mouse or keyboard.

Next look at the seat depth. You don’t want a chair whose seat pushes on the back of your knees. You should have about a seven-centimetre gap between the seat edge and the back of your knees. Test this by sitting back in your chair. There should be a gap large enough to get three fingers into to ensure the blood flow down your legs isn’t reduced.

The armrests on the chair should be height adjustable. Your elbows and lower arms should rest comfortably on these supports without you having to hunch your shoulders, which could lead to head and neck aches. And all chair swivel, but ensure yours can also be locked into the upright position so your upper body is supported as your type and use your mouse.

As back-related problems are the cause of millions of days off work each year, your chair can help keep your back healthy. The lumbar (lower back) region should be fully supported by your chair. And what material is your chair made from? Absorbent materials don’t let your body breath. Today many high quality chairs are made from mesh that conforms perfectly to your body shape, and allows your body to breath. The chair I use? I have one of the World chairs from Humanscale. Not the cheapest on the market, but does allow me to work comfortably and safely for long periods of time — something that would not be possible with a cheap typists chair.

How can I avoid RSI?

Image: Person with wrist pain from Shutterstock

If like me you were never taught how to touch type, you will fall into the hunt and peck category of keyboard users. Several years ago I developed RSI, which manifested as shooting pains in my fingers and a constant ache in my forearms. This is the most common form of RSI (Type 1), which encompasses tendonitis, tennis elbow, rotator cuff syndrome (shoulder pain) and Dupuytren’s contracture (a condition that causes your fingers to bend towards the palm of your hand).

There is no universal cure for RSI with most people developing their own pain relief regime. Wearing a wrist and forearm support can help, but be careful not too weaken your forearm muscles with overuse. Massaging the effected area can help, as can anti-inflammatory painkillers such as Ibuprofen. However, the best way of preventing RSI is to look closely at your keyboard and mouse.

I cured my RSI by switching to a keyboard which had its keys divided into two groups. Microsoft has been producing these ‘natural’ keyboards for years. The latest £99 version dubbed the Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop includes a mouse and separate keypad.

These split keyboard forces your hands into a more natural typing position and reduces the stress you place on your hands and arms when using a standard keyboard. This alleviates pressure on your fingers and forearms in particular, and I even found these keyboards made my typing more efficient, which is a nice added bonus! Also, when you are typing make sure your chair is set high enough so your forearms are level and not stretched forward with your back straight and your feet firmly on the floor. Adopting this typing position should ensure your avoid RSI or reduce the symptoms if you are already a suffer.

How to stay healthy when using a laptop

With more of us using mobile devices instead of desktop computers, ensuring we can use these devices healthily is crucial. Notebook PCs and tablets have much smaller keyboards than their desktop cousins. From a users point of view, this cramped keyboard layout is a recipe for RSI.

Using an external keyboard gives your hands more space and reduces the stress you place on your forearms. And using a mouse instead of a trackpad is also a good idea to give your arms more freedom to move. Trackballs are a good option, as they take up less space if you are using your tablet or notebook away from your desk, and allow you to control your notebook PC with the least amount of stress on your arms.

Ergonomics is the study of how our built environment impacts on our bodies. With most of us sat a desk all day, this environment must be set up to allow us to carry out our jobs yet remain healthy.

Too often we will adapt our bodies to the technologies we need to use, instead of designing our working environments to suit us. Taking the time to think about each component of your workstation and how this impacts on your body will ensure you can remain efficient and avoid debilitating conditions such as back pain or RSI.


This post originally appeared on Lifehacker UK, which is gobbling up the news in a different timezone.


  • This might put the cat amongst the pigeons!

    If ergonomic chairs were the answer no one would have back pain, and only ergonomic chairs would exist.

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