The rise in popularity of homeworking and hot-desking means workstation ergonomics has become a hot topic over the last few years.
But what’s the truth about desk setups? Do you need to buy an expensive chair? We look at the facts and give you the lowdown on how to avoid pain from your workstation.
Are workstation ergonomics important?
While there are plenty of misconceptions about ergonomics, there’s no doubt that the long hours many of us spend at our desks can adversely affect our health.
Repetitive strain injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, back, neck and shoulder pain, headaches and myofascial trigger points are common complaints of the office worker.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, 11 per cent of workers who complained to their GP of musculoskeletal pain in 2013–15 related it to using a keyboard.
So, if you spend long hours at a workstation, what should you think about?
Finding an ideal posture
The message around workstation ergonomics is simple: if you’re going to spend a long time in one position, make it one that’s as stress-free for your body as possible.
This means aligning your equipment to support you in a neutral posture.
Workstation setup checklist
Your workstation needs to be adjusted to fit you – your body is the starting point!
You may have an element that’s non-adjustable – often a desk. If so, the other elements will need to fit around it.
Starting with your desk, then, here are the steps to a good setup:
- Adjust the height of your chair to fit the desk. This means setting it so that your elbows are at right-angles when you rest your forearms on the desk with relaxed shoulders. Your legs should tuck neatly under the desk so you can sit close to it.
- Adjust the tilt of your chair seat, if possible. Set it so that your thighs are sloping downwards a little, and your knees are slightly lower than your hips. If you don’t have tilt adjustment, you can prop yourself on a small pillow or folded towel.
- Your back should be upright. If the chair back doesn’t support you well, use a cushion tucked into the small of your back.
- Set your monitor centrally in front of you, about an arm’s length away. The top of the monitor should be at eye-level. If your monitor doesn’t have height adjustment, you can stand it on a book. Using a laptop? Buy a riser for it to sit on – they’re inexpensive and worthwhile.
- Set the keyboard so you can rest your wrists on the desk while you use it. If you find your wrists are angled, use a wrist support in front of the keyboard.
- If you use a mouse a lot, it may be worth investing in an ergonomic design so that you can use it with your hand side-on. Set the mouse within easy reach.
An ergonomic mouse can prevent wrist and arm pain
- Now that your chair is adjusted to your desk, make sure that your feet rest comfortably on the floor. If not, use a footrest (or a few books).
- Keep documents, phones and other equipment that you use frequently in easy reach. If you need to turn often to reach something, make sure you swivel your chair rather than turning from your waist.
- Make sure you have good lighting that doesn’t produce glare on your screen. If you can set your workstation up near a window for natural light, all the better. Plus, looking away from your screen and into the distance regularly will reduce eyestrain.
- Finally, if you wear glasses, make sure your prescription is up-to-date and appropriate for the screen’s distance. You could also invest in a coating on your lenses that filters out the potentially harmful light that screens emit.
Working from home? Invest some time in your workstation ergonomics to minimise the stress on your body
You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment, then. If you’re on a kitchen chair, cushions and a footstool can help position you correctly.
If your chair is too low for your desk or table, you can get chair raisers from most mobility shops.
Are good workstation ergonomics the answer, then?
Now you’ve set your workstation up perfectly, you may think you’ll have no trouble.
Sadly, it’s not quite that easy!
While a good setup is helpful and will limit problems if you sit all day at your desk, this inactivity still comes with health risks.
In fact, you may have heard that ‘sitting is the new smoking’. And, while sitting isn’t as bad for your health as smoking, it does seem that it does have an impact on your health – even if you have the perfect posture.
Long periods of inactivity just aren’t good for us. That’s true whether we’re sitting or standing, and it’s also true for people who are very active outside these hours.
Research has repeatedly demonstrated this, with one study pointing out that:
“prolonged bouts of sitting time and lack of whole-body muscular movement are strongly associated with obesity, abnormal glucose metabolism, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk and cancer, as well as total mortality independent of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity.”
Our bodies need the stimulus of vigorous movement regularly to make sure each cell gets enough oxygen and nutrients, to facilitate growth and repair, and to make sure every part functions in the way it should.
We’re just not designed to be still for long periods of time, no matter how good the workstation ergonomics.
The message is, then, that while exercise is important for health, avoiding long periods of inactivity is also important.
What does that mean in practical terms?
Move little and often
Your body needs a challenge. You need to get muscles firing, ligaments stretching and joints moving to kickstart all those metabolic processes that keep you in good health.
It’s good to be in an optimal position while you are still, but your body needs variety and activity.
Short bouts of activity are ideal. You don’t need to hit the gym – regular exercise breaks, lasting only a few minutes each hour, are fine.
But spend your minutes wisely – invest in something that works your muscles and gently raises your heart rate.
Professor of Exercise and Health at Ulster University, Marie Murphy, extols the virtues of short bouts of activity – something she refers to as VILPA (vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity).
Running up a flight of stairs is ideal. Try a few lunges, press-ups or squats. Or use a stretchy gym band to get in some resistance training.
Whatever you choose, make it something you can fit in and that you’ll do regularly.
Even changing positions regularly will give your body a break and lessen the toll that a static posture can take.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to swap between chairs.
Change to a wobble stool or a Swiss ball chair from time to time – these have the advantage of building a little movement into your sitting time.
Alternatively, move your laptop to a different place. Sit cross-legged on the floor for a while, or place it on a counter where you can stand to work.
Need help with work-related pain?
Using movement to mitigate the effects of prolonged sitting, therefore, is a proactive step you can take to benefit your health.
But many of us will still struggle with back, neck and joint pain, muscle aches and repetitive strain injuries related to our work.
Our osteopaths and physiotherapists are experts at understanding how work strains affect the body.
If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, ligament or tendon problems, spine or joint pain, or you just feel achy after a day at work, our team are here to support you.
Not only can we treat your pain, but we can equip you with ergonomic advice and self-help measures.
Book in with one of our team today!