Anyone with experience in an office-type environment is familiar with the aches and pains that come from spending hours at a computer. Whether your back aches from a poorly designed chair, your neck is stiff from crouching over a laptop, or your wrist is playing up from constant clicking and typing, office-related strains are all too familiar. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In 2018, it was estimated that 83% of employed adults in the UK were using computers, laptops or other portable devices at work. You can ensure that you and your employees prevent computer-related strains and injuries by making some ergonomic swaps. This article will take you through the four main areas of office ergonomics:
- Ergonomic desks
- Ergonomic office seating
- Monitor selection
- Ergonomic peripherals (mouse and keyboard selection)
What is ergonomics?
Ergonomics is the process of fitting a workplace to the needs of its users. It’s aimed at preventing discomfort and thus maximising productivity and efficiency. It’s a science which looks at biomechanics – the movement, strength and muscles of the human body – and how it interacts with environmental physics, such as light, noise, temperature. Looking at all these factors combined allows ergonomists to design workstations which maximise the working potential of employees.
More and more jobs require workers to spend all day sitting at a desk. For a more comfortable working day, an appropriate desk is an essential place to start.
Desk height plays an important role here. If your desk is too high, you risk overworking your shoulder and arm muscles. Overly contracted shoulder muscles can lead to upper back problems by cramping the muscles and wreaking havoc on your posture. Having a desk that’s too high up can also cause strain on your neck by forcing you to extend your neck to see the monitor. This constant extension can result in pain and tension at the back of your head or top of your spine.
On the other hand, if your desk is too low, you’ll overwork other muscle groups. Shallow desks cause users to slump or hunch over their workstation, which puts strain on the shoulder, upper back, neck and arm muscles.
This height is just right
How do you find the appropriate desk height for you? The basic premise is that your desk should be at a comfortable height which allows you, and encourages you, to have a good posture. Your elbows should be at a ninety-degree angle with your body when using your keyboard and mouse, your feet should be flat on the floor, and your knees should be in line with or slightly lower than your hips. For most people, to achieve an optimal posture, the desk should be 1-2 inches above their thighs.
For people in the range of 5’8 to 5’10 tall, the recommended desk height is 28 to 30 inches. To work out the optimal height for your desk in relation to your height, you can use an online desk height calculator. Ironically, the industry standard for desk height is 29 inches, which would be appropriate for a person 6 foot tall. Only an estimated 15-20% of people in the world are 6ft or taller. Fortunately for the rest of us, many desks now offer an adjustable height feature.
Height adjustable workstations allow the user to adjust the surface to a suitable height, permitting you to try out several heights and work out the most comfortable position. Height-adjustment is also perfect for hot-desking working environments – each user can adjust it to a height that suits them.
While an adjustable desk can eliminate much of the discomfort associated with long periods of sitting at a desk, it does not help the fact that being sat-down for extended periods has been linked to a series of health problems.
Taking away back pain, shoulder strain and a rounded posture, even a comfortably seated person is at risk. Studies have shown that sitting for long periods slows the metabolism, which in turn reduces the body’s efficiency at breaking down body fat and regulating blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
The NHS estimates that being sedentary for most of the day accounts for a staggering 69,000 deaths a year. Studies have even indicated that increased exercise outside of this sedentary time has limited effects: the only thing we can do to reduce our risk is to reduce our time spent sitting.
How can I sit less at a desk job?
Let us introduce standing desks. Standing desks are an extension of the adjustable desks, with a much more extensive potential height range, allowing use while standing up. These are known as sit-stand desks, offering the potential for both.
A study of 146 NHS office workers tested the effects of sitting desks versus sit-stand over 12 months. Those using the sit-stand desks reduced their daily sitting time by more than an hour on average, over the 12-month period. The workers themselves reported reduced anxiety, better quality of life as well as feeling more engaged and less tired, pointing to the benefits for productivity.
Regarding the health of the participants, the results indicated a small improvement in some types of musculoskeletal problems. Mitigating the effects of a sedentary lifestyle long-term is likely to have much more health benefits.
What height should my standing desk be?
The recommended height for a standing desk is elbow height, allowing your arms to rest at a 90-degree angle.
Standing desks, or sit-stand desks, are becoming increasingly popular and thus more and more available on the general market. If manually adjusting your workstation every day seems like hard work, they also provide a range of electric adjustable desks to do the work for you. Unfortunately, standing desks come at a price. If you don’t want to commit to such an investment, there are some cheaper alternatives.
Standing desk converters
If you’re not yet sold on the idea, or if standing desks are out your budget, there are alternatives. Standing desk converters (like Vari Converters) sit atop your current desk. They are usually less expensive than their committed counterparts and are far more flexible. It’s great if you want to try it out without forking out £300 for a new desk.
Another positive is that they’re usually far more straightforward to assemble than the sit-stand desks themselves. They’re also a lot more portable, meaning you can take your standing desk wherever you go.
There’s a huge array of designs on the market, varying from simple to stylish and the most practical to the most comfortable. For a comprehensive review, check out this guide to choosing a standing desk converter.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Having a perfectly ergonomic desk is all very well, but without a suitable chair to match, you’re wasting your time. A poor office chair is one of the primary causes of back pain in the UK, which is the second most common cause for a sick day. A good seat is therefore essential for any ergonomic office space, boosting productivity and comfort in one.
Ergonomic office seating
There’s a broad range of ergonomic desk seating available that also range hugely in price. At the lower end of the scale, the fundamental feature is the option to adjust the seat height.
The ideal height for a desk chair should enable you to have both feet flat on the floor. The NHS recommends that your knees are slightly lower than your hips when you’re in a sitting position. When you’re shopping around for desk chairs, a good test is to stand in front of the chair. The top of the seat should be, or easily adjusted to be, in line with your kneecaps.
Having armrests will reduce the stress and strain on your arm and shoulder muscles by bridging the gap between your arms and the desk when using your computer. Ideally, armrests should point slightly inwards, as most computer users will have their hands fairly close together when typing or using a computer.
Higher-end chairs may have a pivot function, which allows the user to change the angle at which they point in or out. This feature is particularly important if you frequently use a mobile phone or smaller portable device, meaning your hands are even closer together.
Chairs in the upper price-bracket offer seat depth adjustment sometimes called “seat sliding”. Users can adjust the distance between the base of the seat and the backrest. You should have a 1-2 inch gap between the inside of your knees and the edge of the chair.
People with longer legs can adjust the seat depth to have a bigger gap between the seat and the backrest to enable this 1-2-inch gap between their knees and the seat-edge, to make sure their legs are supported. A smaller space between the inside of your knees and the chair prevents excess pressure being applied to the knees, which can happen if the seat depth is too shallow. Conversely, if your seat is too deep, you may experience numbness in your legs where circulation is reduced.
Alternatives to the classic desk chair
Even comfortable chairs tend to encourage a very relaxed sitting position. Lots of support is fantastic for easing muscle tension, but lounging, even comfortably, comes with problems of its own. Other alternatives encourage what is known as ‘active sitting’ by helping your body to support itself.
Many backless stools (like the Active Seat Basic) are a great way to increase the engagement of your muscles. Activating your back muscles encourages a natural and upright position and prevents your body from getting too relaxed, which can lead to poor posture.
Exercise ball and stool in one
There was a craze not too long ago of people swapping out their desk chairs for an exercise ball. Many people quickly found the balls impractical for lengthier periods, requiring a lot of muscle engagement and in some cases, considerable concentration. However, the trend did lead to the invention of the exercise ball stool, where the seat appears to be half of an exercise ball.
This stool offers more stability than an exercise ball as well as having the benefits of muscle activation. Increased muscle use also burns more calories over a working day. Experts do warn, however, that prolonged use can lead to poor posture and increased pressure on the spine.
A saddle stool is quite a popular option in dentists or opticians. The saddle stool is a good option as it forces your pelvis to tilt forwards encouraging the natural lumbar curve of the spine. The lack of back support prevents slouching by activating your back muscles to do the work. The downside is that it can be uncomfortable for extended periods, which may make it unsuitable for a full-time office job.
For sufferers of lower back pain, you might consider a kneeling chair. Kneeling chairs came into popularity in the 1980s and 90s and have since pretty much disappeared. These unconventional chairs have two platforms as it were: one serving as the traditional seat and a lower pad supporting your knees and shins. The chair angles forwards and allows better weight distribution, taking the pressure off the lower back.
Several studies have proved the positive effects on the spine of the kneeling chair, encouraging a neutral position by helping the spine to assume a natural S-shape alignment. However, taking the pressure off your lower back means that your knees bear more of the brunt.
A game of musical chairs
Not all chairs will suit everybody. In an ideal world, you’d have several of the above options that you can interchange throughout the day. If you can, try out a couple of designs to pick one that works for you. Once you’re comfortably settled at your desk, it’s time to turn to what’s on it.
The top of your screen should be on or slightly below eye-level. A monitor placed too high increases the strain on your neck and shoulders as you have to tilt your head back. Looking upwards can also increase the likelihood of light-induced headaches, as you’ll be looking more directly at the overhead lighting.
A monitor that’s too low, however, can cause you to hunch over and tilt your head forward, which can also lead to neck pain. The best position is straight ahead, about an arm’s length away from your body (Vari Dual-Monitor Arms also are a great way to do this without crowding your desk).
Having established that an appropriately positioned monitor can prevent neck strain and tension in the upper back and shoulders, the essential requirement for an ergonomic monitor is to have a height-adjustment feature. You can then play with the height of the monitor to find a comfortable position. While the NHS recommends having the top of the screen at or just below eye level, users wearing bifocals may find it more comfortable to have the screen lower so they can see the screen easily using their bottom lenses.
Up, down, left, right
After establishing a comfortable height for your monitor, the next important thing is being able to adjust the angle of the monitor. It’s best to have the monitor tilting up slightly (so the bottom of the screen comes towards you). This tilt allows you to best see the full screen with a relaxed neck position.
Monitor setup options
Aside from the physical features of the monitor, you should ensure that you can change the display settings. The brightness, for example, should be balanced with the surroundings behind it. Having your office space lit evenly is important for preventing headaches.
Another option that some monitors may offer is a setting sometimes referred to as ‘night-mode’ or ‘dark mode’. This feature removes the blue light and is often used on mobile phones after a specific time in the evening, as blue light triggers an association with daytime and suppress melatonin, a hormone necessary for sleeping. Many people find this setting more comfortable during the daytime as well, reporting less strain and dryness in their eyes.
Comfort on a budget
Many of the ergonomic products on the market come with a hefty price tag. The more features you opt for, the more you’ll need to invest. But it is possible to make a space ergonomic and economical.
Height adjustments can make significant differences in comfort and muscle strain. You can achieve the same effect, however, without fancy equipment. If you have a stationary monitor, for example, a simple fix is to pile up some books to a suitable height and sit the screen on top. The same goes for raising a desk – it’s easy to improvise with books, boxes or even wads of paper.
Another low-cost option is to go for a laptop stand over an adjustable desk. You can get a laptop stand for as little as ten pounds, giving you ample freedom for the height of your monitor. If you frequently work on a portable device, this is also a good option if you’re often hunching over your screen but don’t want to invest in a monitor. If you need to type a lot, consider using a separate keyboard at desk height and using a laptop stand to raise your laptop to an optimum monitor level.
Depending on your job, you may find yourself relying heavily on other equipment. Those who spend a lot of the day typing, for example, may experience wrist pain. As such, for certain jobs, ergonomic peripherals can be just as significant in increasing comfort as the main components like a good desk and comfortable chair.
If your job involves a large amount of typing, an ergonomic keyboard can be a godsend. Ergonomic keyboards usually have a slight mount in the middle where your hands meet to type, meaning both your hands type on a bit of a slope, sloping upwards in the middle.
The keyboard also tends to be split between the keys covered by your left and right hands with a small gap in the centre, allowing each side to slope downwards. Some manufacturers split their keyboards down the middle, offering two entirely separate interfaces. A more curved and separated setup promotes a far more natural position for your hands, wrists and forearms, preventing repetitive strain injury.
Some computer users will find they rely much more heavily on the mouse, and rarely touch the keyboard. For these people, an ergonomic mouse can make a huge difference.
Most ergonomic mice flip the traditional model on its side, sometimes referred to as vertical mice. Instead of the mouse hiding beneath your hand as in the conventional design, ergonomic mice fit a much more natural hand position.
To soften the blow
If you don’t want to invest in a keyboard or mouse, you can pick up some padded mouse pads. Cushioning your wrist reduces the tension from holding the mouse in an unnatural position, meaning your muscles will be far more relaxed when using the mouse, reducing muscle pain. The same goes for keyboard use – pads are even available for your elbows if you spend a lot of time reading your computer screen.
Three, two, one, stretch
While all these products can have a significant impact on your comfort at work, they’ll have a much better effect when coupled with good general practice. When sitting at a desk all day, take regular breaks – long periods of sitting has been associated with increased risk of heart disease. Take a few minutes every couple of hours to have a stretch and have a walk around, outside if you can.
When it comes to safe work practice, HSE recommends taking short, regular breaks when spending lots of time on a computer to prevent eye strain, fatigue and backache. They advise a 5-10 minute break after every 50-60 minutes of looking at a screen or using a keyboard.
Maximum comfort, maximum impact
In our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, making ergonomic swaps are becoming more and more critical for improving our overall health. The British Heart Foundation estimates that the average sitting time for a working adult in the UK is 9.5 hours a day, but for office workers, this can be much higher.
With such a considerable amount of time spent sitting every day, it’s therefore imperative for our overall health to have a comfortable setup to minimise aches, pains and office-related injuries. Even the smallest swaps can have an enormous impact in reducing daily muscle strain, such as an ergonomic keyboard or mouse.
Subscribe for entrepreneurial & small business advice
Subscribe to our newsletter for advice and insights on starting, managing and growing a small business in the UK.
Not only are these products far better for your overall health, and that of your employees, but studies have proved that they have huge effects on efficiency and work potential. Maximum comfort generates maximum productivity. The comfort of your employees should therefore be your top priority – less injury, more work and a happier, healthier team.