If you’ve ever stood up from a long day at your desk and winced as your back seized up, or experienced the sharp pain and weird numbness that carpal tunnel syndrome can gift you, you know that your work environment has a direct impact on your health. And if you start to look into ways of improving both that environment and that impact, you have no doubt come across the word “ergonomics.” If you tell someone your back is bothering you, someone is certain to suggest that you get an “ergonomic” office chair, for example.
But what is an ergonomic chair? What makes it ergonomic? Ergonomics is one of those concepts that everyone gives lip service to but few seem to truly understand, like the Cloud. Here’s what “ergonomics” really means.
Ergonomics is about redesigning the workplace
For most of human history, the body has been expected to adapt to the workplace. Humans were pushed into all manner of environments — coal mines, assembly lines, office cubicles — that were designed to make the labour efficient, without any concern for the comfort (or health) of the human body. Probably the most common experience with this delightful side effect of capitalism is the damnable office chairs most of us get in our jobs: Just a few hours in a cheap rolling chair and you feel like you’ll be wounded for life.
Ergonomics is one of those Greek compound words: Ergon means “work” and nomos means “laws.” Ergonomics is the practice of examining the systems we engage with (your office or a factory, for example) and how humans must behave within that system, then seeking ways to improve those systems or adapt them to the human body instead of the other way around. In other words, an ergonomic approach to work environments takes five things into consideration: Safety, productivity, ease of use, aesthetics, and comfort. The idea is to design work environments with these aspects in mind instead of just throwing you into a cube with a bad chair and tasking you with figuring out what lower back pillow will save your sanity.
There’s science behind this: Being uncomfortable and in pain negatively affects productivity and quality of work. Your company isn’t concerned with ergonomics because they love you. Rather, there’s a solid economic argument behind introducing ergonomic principles to the workplace. An ergonomically-designed workplace can do the following:
- Reduce injuries — which reduces sick days and disability claims.
- Increase performance and morale, which increases productivity.
- Reduce healthcare costs.
True ergonomics takes the entire work environment or system into account. It’s not about tossing one expensive chair into a mess. To truly have an ergonomic work environment, you need to consider all aspects of that environment, from the chair that supports your back and elbows and keeps your posture straight, to the keyboard that allows you to hold your hands in a comfortable position without straining your wrists, to a monitor that’s positioned at a height that doesn’t strain your neck, to a schedule of short breaks where you stand up and move around.
The key here is that every work environment and every person is different, so ergonomic plans need to be personalised. For example, for some people, a standing desk is a great option because it stops them from sitting all day. However, if standing all day causes you back pain or distracting discomfort, then it’s not very ergonomic for you. Safety (preventing injury) is important, but so is comfort and ease of use. The same goes for a beautiful ergonomic chair. If the lumbar support beam actually makes you uncomfortable, or the armrests aren’t positioned correctly for how you work, the term “ergonomic” in the product description is meaningless. The aesthetics of a Herman Miller chair are terrific, but if it doesn’t offer you ease of use, it’s not ergonomic for you.
Ergonomics is all about designing systems, and systems are complex. If you need a more ergonomic approach to your work environment, remember that one size doesn’t fit all, and you are part of that system, so your specific needs and preferences need to be addressed as well.