Workplace ergonomics

This subject is a hot topic of conversation at The Willow Clinic and, in particular, the way that sitting down has become a key part of most people’s daily activities.

There is a large focus on experiencing the world from a seated position – from studying at school, to watching a movie, driving a car, travelling on public transport or sitting at a desk. Sedentary posture can place abnormal stresses and strains on the body’s tissues, which can result in pain and dysfunction.

It is one of the main causes of musculoskeletal disorders which can affect the neck, lower back and upper limbs. These are common areas osteopaths treat on a daily basis, in practice, but could be eased by addressing your workplace ergonomics. Evidence from various studies have found that sedentary lifestyles are partly causing an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression.

In an ideal world, we would work productively for 8 hours of a day with a perfect posture, without taking a break and remaining productive throughout. But back to reality, our bodies are not made to sit or stand for long periods, so like everything it should be in moderation. If you try and adopt better posture as often as you can while seated or standing though, it should result in a reduction in the chances of the postural strains from reoccurring.

Within the workplace setting, people need to be aware of some simple tips to better help themselves. These include:

  • Avoid awkward working postures
  • Avoid prolonged sitting postures
  • Avoid repetitive tasks (e.g. typing and mouse work)
  • Try to reduce stress levels (i.e. from tight deadlines)

We are all different (thank goodness) so what works for one person may not work for another. One chair may be good for a short stature but not for a taller stature. We need to use these ideas and find which aspects work best for us, related to job demands, needs, different lifestyles and states of health.

Below is some simple advice that should help you to set up your seated/standing work station. If you do however, require a more thorough personalised assessment of your work station ergonomics, then contact your local osteopath who should be able to help you further.

Chair Setup

The setup of the chair you work from or spend prolonged periods in can make a huge difference too. There are a wide range of ergonomic chairs on the market and it can be difficult to know which one is the best for you, but the main things to look out for when using or purchasing a chair are the following:

  • It has 5 casters for stability
  • Back rest tilt adjustable (forward and backwards)
  • Seat pan adjustable (in and out)
  • Back rest height adjustable (up and down)
  • Chair height adjustable
  • Arms adjustable (up and down)
  • The chair is a good fit for the individual

The first adjustment to be made is the chair height, in relation to the desk in your work station. In a relaxed position, sitting in your chair, it is recommended that your elbows are 0-50mm above the desk height. Your knees should be approximately at right angles with a 2-3 finger gap between the back of your knees and the front of the chair. Your thighs are parallel (angle slightly greater than 90 degrees) and your feet should be flat on the ground. If you are not able to reach the floor a footrest maybe required.

Adjusting the back rest tilt is the next. Recline it between 10-20 degrees from vertical so you are in a comfortable and relaxed position. If you chair has a lumbar support this should be placed in the curve of your lower back.

Finally, if your chair has arm rests that are adjustable, remove or lower them so you are able to get your chair as close to the desk and so they won’t push your elbows upwards.
This will allow your shoulders to relax, keeping your elbows at 90 degrees, with forearms supported parallel to the keyboard and wrists in a neutral position.


Desk Setup

Now your chair is adjusted let’s focus our attention on your desk.

Your monitor should be placed directly in front of you approximately an arm’s length away. The top third of the screen should be at eye level. This height can be achieved by using a monitor stand or text books. If you are using a laptop as much as a PC it is advised that you use a laptop riser, keyboard and mouse as it is difficult to adopt a good working posture when using for prolonged periods.

Make sure your keyboard and mouse are approximately 10-25cm away from the edge of the table. The mouse should be placed adjacent to the keyboard and you should not be over reaching for either when working.desk setup

If you use a telephone try placing it on the opposite side to your mouse and in an accessible position. When a job requires frequent phone use it is advisable to use a headset to avoid cradling the phone between shoulder and neck.

If you find that you have lots of clutter on your desk find a way to minimise this to give you the space you require to work productively and ergonomically. A document riser placed between your keyboard and monitor can assist in reducing mess on your desk and enabling you to work more productively.

workplace ergonomics

Standing desks

While there is no conclusive research yet that shows standing at a desk and taking regular breaks is better for you than sitting at a desk and taking regular breaks, it does make sense that by standing for prolonged periods you could burn more calories and avoid the problems associated with being stationary. The problem is, standing for prolonged periods has been shown to have health risks too.

Standing desks, if used correctly and perhaps mixed with some sitting, could be part of the solution. The key thing is to ensure you don’t stay in the same seated or standing position for long periods of the day. You need to figure out a routine that you can stick to day in and day out and get regular breaks from your desk.

The main things to be aware of with a standing desk set up, is that you should start using the desk for a period of 20-30 minutes at a time and increase the length gradually.

The ergonomics are similar, to the seated desk setup e.g. monitor distance and height, position of shoulder/elbow and wrist and document and telephone positioning.

It is advised that you use a standing desk mat which decreases the load through your legs. It is important that your standing posture is neutral and relaxed and that you wear supportive footwear.

standing desks

Here are some final recommendations that can help you to work in a safer and healthier environment.

  • Take regular breaks away from your desk every 45- 60 minutes
  • Throw rubbish in a bin on the opposite side of the office
  • Drink a glass of water at regular intervals
  • Discuss something with a colleague rather than sending an email
  • Set vibrate on your watch or phone to remind yourself to stand up and stretch every 20-30 minutes
  • Take a phone call standing
  • Try to stand/walk in a meeting
  • Sit on an adjustable swivel chair to make it easier to move about and reach for things
  • Use a headset if you are on the phone a lot to avoid straining your neck
  • Consider using a document holder on your screen if you often need to transcribe documents, so that you are not straining your neck
  • Turn off or dim bright lights near your desk to avoid or reduce eye. Use task lights at your desk or consider fixing a glare-screen on your computer as well.

It may be hard to make all these changes at once, as some elements may be out of you control. Work with what you have, to improve as much as you can, to assist in making your work place a healthier and happier environment.  If you have any questions on this subject or would like some advice on your workplace ergonomics please contact The Willow Clinic.

I would personally like to thank Corporate Work Health Australia, in particular, Dr Heath Williams for allowing me to use their diagrams and for supplying the background information for this blog article.