If you sit behind a desk for a long time, you might have witnessed the various health issues that accompany it.
But does it really have to be that way?
Enter workstation ergonomics.
The goal of ergonomics is to design your office workstation in such a way that helps prevent musculoskeletal injuries and repetitive motion injuries, thus helping you maximize your productivity.
But first, you might be wondering:
How exactly do I know whether my existing workstation is setup ergonomically?
Before we dive into how to actually setup a ergonomic workplace, let's take a quick quiz to answer this burning question.
Now that you know how you your computer setup compares ergonomically...
Here's a handy calculator you can use to find the ideal desk adjustments according to your height.
Ergonomic Workstation Setup Calculator
What are the components of a ergonomic workstation? What exactly makes a hardware ergonomic? What should you look for before buying such hardware?
Let's dive in and find out.
1. Chair ergonomics: explained
The chair is the foundation for a comfortable computer workstation. A good chair provides necessary support to the backs, legs, buttocks, and arms.
Here are some essential elements of a chair you should consider.
The backrest should be large enough to support your entire back. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that the backrest should be 15-20 inches high and 13 inches wide approximately.
The natural curve of our lower back (spine) is slightly inward. Thus, sitting on a directly vertical chair is a sure-shot recipe for lower back pain. Lumbar back support fills in the gap between the lumbar spine and the seat, thus promoting good posture.
The chair should be equipped with lumbar support to help maintain the natural curve of the spine. You also might want to look out for height adjustable lumbar support so it can fit the lower back nicely.
If your current chair doesn’t come with lumbar support, and you don’t want to upgrade to an expensive chair, you can buy a strap-on lumbar support which you can attach to your chair.
— Dr Alan Hedge, Professor @ Cornell University Ergonomics
The chair should also be vertically reclinable, at least 15 degrees. This will let you shift positions or relax naturally.
Poor back support and inappropriate postures may result from inadequate backrest size, material, positioning, or use. For example, a chair without a suitable or adjustable backrest will not provide adequate lumbar support or help maintain the natural S-shape curvature of the spine. Working in these postures may lead to back pain and fatigue.
Your forearms should rest comfortably on the arm-rests, with your shoulders at the relaxed position. A proper arm-rest supports your lower arm and allows your upper arm to remain close to the torso.
Armrests that have sharp corners can irritate the blood vessels. Therefore, it’s preferable to get one with round edges.
If the arm-rests are too high or low, it might cause muscle tension and neck stiffness.
Armrests that are not adjustable, or those that have not been appropriately adjusted, may expose you to awkward postures or fail to provide adequate support.
For example, armrests that are too large or inappropriately placed may interfere with the positioning of the chair. If the chair cannot be placed close enough to the keyboard, you may need to reach and lean forward in your chair. This can fatigue and strain the lower back, arm, and shoulder.
If you already have a chair and you can’t adjust the arm-rest properly, it might be a better idea to remove them altogether.
Chair base and adjustability
The ideal office chair should have a 5-legged base for maximum stability. Chairs with 4 legs or fewer might be prone to tipping. Also, choose a chair with caster/wheels. A stationary chair can hinder your movement in the workspace.
The height of the chair should be adjustable vertically so that your legs are at right angles to the floor. If the seat is too long, you’ll be inclined to lean forward, which may cause strain on your back.
Here’s a good practice. While seated, keep a distance of 3-4 fingers between the back of your knees and the front edge of the seat.
The seat material should be soft and padded. Unpadded material can cause pain and numbness in the legs. The cover fabric should be porous and breathable. Hard and unpadded material may restrict blood flow to the legs, leading to pain.
If you’re going to share the chair between multiple users, make sure the seat is comfortable for all users. If the seat pan is too small, it can place excess pressure on the hips of taller users. If it's too large, excess pressure on the knee area of shorter users.
You should be able to adjust the height of the seat pan so that your legs are at right angles and your feet rest flat on the floor. Your forearms should be horizontal and at right angles to your upper arms and your elbows should just clear the top of the work surface.
2. Monitor Ergonomics: explained
A poorly positioned monitor could introduce uncomfortable postures which can eventually lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) and also cause significant eye-strain.
This section will deal with how to position your monitor in the most ergonomic way possible, helping you reduce the possibility of all these medical conditions.
The monitor should be positioned in such a way that the topmost of your screen should be at your eye level.
The distance between your eyes and the screen should be about an arm’s length
(16-29 inches) when your neck is straight.
— Dr Alan Hedge, Professor @ Cornell University Ergonomics
If you use bifocal or trifocal lenses, you should position the monitor a little lower. This will ensure that you do not have to tilt the head up to view the screen.
If you need more workstation space or if multiple people are planning to use the workstation, it might be a good idea to mount the monitor on an adjustable arm.
Place the monitor directly in front of you so you can view the entire screen without twisting your head or neck much. Monitors should not be farther than 35 degrees to the left or right. Working with your head and neck turned to the side for a prolonged period loads neck muscles unevenly and increased fatigue and pain.
Viewing angles that are shorter than 20 inches may cause your eyes to focus harder. Whereas, viewing angles greater than 40 can cause eye strain.
Tilt the monitor screen about 10 to 20 degrees, such that it is perpendicular to your line of sight. This is more easily doable if the monitor has a riser/swivel stand.
Setup for Dual-Monitors
Many studies have documented the benefits of adding a second monitor to your workstation. A dual monitor setup is great for productivity. For example, Microsoft’s research found that using dual monitors can improve productivity by 9 per cent, and up to 50 per cent for specific tasks such as cutting and pasting.
A common question that arises is how to do you position these dual monitors for best ergonomics?
Here’s the deal.
First of all, ask yourself: How much time do you use each monitor?
- Figure 1: If both the monitors are used an equal amount of time, position the monitors side-by-side and angle the monitors in a slightly outward V-shape (about 15°). The area where the monitors meet should be directly in the front of the user.
- Figure 2: If you use a monitor primarily (more than 2/3rd of your time), position the primary monitor directly in front of the user. Position the secondary monitor to either side at an angle of 15°.
The rest of the dual monitor setup should follow the same best ergonomic practices of that of a single monitor setup.
3. Keyboard & Mouse ergonomic best practices: explained
The ideal keyboard ergonomic posture is achieved when the keyboard is below seated elbow height, and the keyboard base is gently sloped away from the user so that the key tops are accessible to the hands in a neutral posture.
The keyboard should be thin to help keep your wrists straight while you’re typing. If you use a keyboard platform, choose one with adjustable height and angle.
Wrists and forearms should be relatively straight, slightly above the keyboard: your hands should be at or just below elbow height. Shoulders should be relaxed, elbows close to your body.
A palm rest can support your palms and wrists during rest periods from keying. Make sure you place the palm rest under your palms, not your wrists.
Alternative keyboards can be used to help maintain a natural wrist posture. It might take a while to become accustomed to these alternative keyboard layouts, though. However, proper chair height and work surface adjustments are more important than an alternative keyboard.
Smaller keyboards, such as those found on laptops, may also contribute to stressful postures. Whenever possible, you should use a full keyboard instead of using your laptop keyboard.
Keep your wrist straight during mouse work. Don’t bend your wrist from side to side. Try to move your whole arm, instead. “Palming” the mouse helps keep the wrist straight and reduces the small-wrist motions.
4. Standing Desk ergonomics: best practices explained
Standing desks are a great alternative to the more-traditional sitting desks.
Dr Levine from Mayo Clinic says that the correlation between the lack of movement over several generations and the dramatic increase in obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and other potentially very damaging health issues… all good reasons to think seriously about standing desks.
So what are the things you should keep in mind when working on a standing desk?
When using a standing workstation, keep your head, neck, torso and legs approximately in line and vertical. Use a footrest to shift your weight from foot to foot. Wear shoes that provide proper support.
Place your monitor directly in front of you, at least 20 inches away. Place your keyboard and mouse at such a distance that the elbows are close to your body.
While typing or using your mouse, keep your wrists straight, your upper arms close to your body, and your hands at or slightly below the level of your elbows.
Chair-living has proven so enticing that we have forsaken our legs. It is now time to find ways to get us back onto our legs.
— Dr. James Levine, former professor @ Mayo Clinic
If you have an adjustable height desk that meets the full ANSI/BIFMA requirements for adjustability, the desk will provide the proper height adjustment required for the keyboard, and you will just need to add a monitor arm to ensure proper alignment and positioning of your head, neck and shoulders.
BIFMA, or the Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturer's Association, is a non-profit organization that was formed with the purpose of creating voluntary standards that would promote safe working environments.
You might be wondering why the monitor arm needs to be adjustable and why you can’t just set it and forget it. This is a great question.
As mentioned above our bodies are all different. Some of us have long legs, others have a long torso. This makes it extremely difficult to maintain the exact position and relationship between keyboard and monitor when moving from one position to the other. There are often several inches difference in distance between the monitor and keyboard based on whether you are sitting or standing.
If you’ve done everything right until now, you’re in a reasonably good position. However, you need to be mindful of your body itself to reap the actual benefits of the ergonomic hardware.
5. Posture: You need to make an effort, too
A good posture can help you prevent backaches, headaches and muscle stiffness. This is especially important if you spend hours sitting at your desk.
According to UCLA ergonomics, here’s how an ideal posture looks like while sitting at your computer.
- Push your hips as far back as they can go in the chair.
- Adjust the seat height so your feet are flat on the floor and your knees equal to, or slightly lower than, your hips.
- Adjust the back of the chair to a 100°-110° reclined angle. Make sure your upper and lower back are supported
- Adjust the armrests so that your shoulders are relaxed.
5. Take Frequent breaks: movement in the office
Since most of us spend a lot of time sitting at our desk, a natural alternative seems that we should switch to a standing desk. But in a Mayo Clinic research paper, Dr James Levine explains that explains the real key is movement, not sitting all day and definitely not standing all day either.
What you need is an adjustable height desk, NOT a standing desk. This is a critical distinction. A height-adjustable desk, unsurprisingly, lets you adjust the height of the desk. You can use our ergonomic worspace calculator tool at the top of this page to calculate the ideal measurements based on your height.
Anyway, how do you introduce more movement naturally into your office space?
The 20-20-20 rule.
The rule says that after every 20 minutes, look 20 seconds away from your screen, at something 20 feet away from you.
6. tips to prevent computer eye-strain
Eye strain often is caused by excessively bright light either from outdoor sunlight coming in through a window or from harsh interior lighting. When you use a computer, your ambient lighting should be about half as bright as that typically found in most offices.
To avoid eye strain, the should computer display text should be three times the smallest size that you can read from your normal viewing position (about 20 inches).
— Dr. James Sheedy, Director of Optometry Research at Pacific University.
The best color combination for your eyes is black text on a white background, though other dark-on-light combinations also work well.
Have you ever noticed that it’s hard to sleep immediately after using a computer late at night? This is probably due to the fact that screens emits blue-light, which can interfere with your sleeping patterns. You can use apps like Flux (Windows) and Night Shift (In-built in Mac) to help mitigate this issue.
Images by Blitzresults, OSHA, and bakkerelkhuizen whitepaper used under CC 2.0 license