If you work from either a home office or in a cubicle, you might find that by the middle of the day your legs ache, your back hurts, or your fingers are feeling slightly numb. If you’re constantly shifting positions, finding the need to stretch, or wishing for something to rest your feet on, you’re likely causing yourself unnecessary physical pain by the position of your seating arrangement. The theory of office ergonomics is basically used to describe the science of “designing the job to fit the worker, not forcing the worker to fit the job.” This can mean forcing yourself to fit into a desk that is too small, sitting in a chair that is too low, or using a computer — including the mouse and keyboard — that is positioned in a way that can cause wrist pain. Adjusting even tiny components of your work station can reduce pain, prevent long-term health problems, and prevent distraction from discomfort — which might actually make you more productive.
If you recently accepted a new job, moved into a new cubicle, or even just bought a new chair for your existing home office, you might be suddenly experiencing back pain or shoulder pain while sitting in your new office setup. I recently bought a new chair for my home office, which includes a desk I’ve had for several years. I’ve never experienced pain while sitting at the desk, let alone used the desk as my primary place of work. However, the new chair not only sits higher, but offers adjustable tilt and options for lumbar support. My desk sits low, and so my new chair and I didn’t quite fit into the small seating area (which was not a problem with my previous, much smaller chairs) and my legs dangled. (Yes, I am fairly petite.) My back was also lacking support, as I had failed to adjust the height of the back of the chair, causing terrible back pain within just days.
For others who are new to a job or adjusting to changes within their workstation, you may find that your wrists hurt while using a new keyboard or mouse. Additionally, if your monitor is too low (or too high), your neck can quickly become sore from twisting or tilting high or low. Even talking on the phone without a headset can cause neck injuries over time. This pain is not to be ignored — working in an awkward position, especially with repetitive motions, are frequently linked to ergonomic disorders. According to Oklahoma State’s Environmental Health and Safety program, these are called “Repetitive Strain Injuries” (RSIs) and are usually caused by repetitive motions that would not result in undue stress or harm if only performed once. The list of such injuries include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tenosynovitis, DeQuarvain’s syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, many back injuries, and others.
Of course, these types of conditions are easy to prevent. Many large companies, including tech giants like Google, Microsoft, and Boeing, employ specialists who ensure that each employe is situated in a workstation that fits their specific needs. Medicine balls are often suggested as a substitute chair to reduce back strain, and many new employees are “fitted” in their chairs during orientation (or shortly thereafter) to ensure that they are comfortable — and to prevent long-term injury. Google actually offers its employees several types of seating from which to choose throughout the day, including the option to work from a couch, the floor, or even while standing to reduce strain and injuries should their bodies get tired of sitting in one position.
In fact, standing desks are becoming a popular option for workers. OSHA, which defines the safety guidelines for employees in the US, suggests that desks be adjustable for both seating and standing. If you work from home, you can find these types of desks for under $100. For the cheapest option, however, just head to your nearest Starbucks to work for a few hours — the seating options at its “bar” area are the perfect height for working while standing up.
If you’re still uncomfortable at your home office, grab your roommate, spouse, or eldest child and have them take a look at how you sit. You may not be able to tell if your thighs are parallel to the floor or if you’re hunched forward in your office chair. If your seating area is squished, consider removing the drawer separating your seating area from the desktop. You will also want to spend some time adjusting your chair so that your seat is parallel to the floor and for better lumbar support. Adding a footrest, should your feet dangle, will also help reduce pain — just be sure the footrest is high enough to ensure your legs are perpendicular to the floor. (You can easily make one yourself, or buy one at an office supply store.)
Still experiencing discomfort? Here are a few other key ergonomic factors to consider to reduce pain while working at home or in your cubicle.
Computer Monitor: Make sure the screen is large enough for adequate visibility. Usually a 15 to 20-inch monitor is sufficient. Smaller units will make it difficult to read characters and larger units may require excessive space.
Keyboards: Keyboards should be detached from the display screen if they are used for a long duration keying task. Laptop keyboards are generally not suitable for prolonged typing tasks.
Desks: Your desk should be big enough to accommodate a monitor placed at least 20 inches away from your eyes, and the desk surface should be at about elbow height when you’re seated. There should be sufficient space underneath for your legs while sitting in a variety of positions.
Mouse: Choose a mouse/pointer based on the requirements of your task and your physical limitations. There really is no difference, other than preference, among a mouse, trackball, or other device.
Chair: The bottom line is that your chair should not cause you pain. (We all know work can be torture, but this should not be one of the components.) One of the most important parts of well-designed chair is that the backrest should extend high enough to support your upper trunk and neck/shoulder area. If the backrest reclines more than about 30 degrees from vertical, a headrest should be provided. Chris Pirillo has one of the most comfortable office chairs designed. If you’re looking for one of the best designed chairs — and have the budget — check out Grahl.
As for me, we hacked my desk to allow more legroom, added a custom made footrest, and adjusted my new chair so that the seat was parallel to the floor and the back rest was higher for better lumbar support. I also use a use a stand for my MacBook Air along with a separate mouse and keyboard, which prevents strain on my wrists, neck, and eyes when at my desk while still allowing for the flexibility to sit on the couch or elsewhere if I so desire. The result? The back pain immediately disappeared — and I might (just might) be feeling slightly more productive, too.
Do you have any home office (or even “real” office) ergonomic tips, tricks, or even hacks? Share your thoughts or projects in the comments.