The overarching goal of ergonomics is to balance productivity and comfort. Ideally, every physical feature in your office, from the layout and lighting to the controls of the latest electronic device on your desk, should support this goal.
Put Your Body in a Neutral Posture
Your office equipment should allow you to position your body to honor its natural shapes and contours. Your spine should retain its natural, gentle “S” shape, from the base of your spine all the way up to your head. Your joints should be in positions as neutral as possible, with no excessive flexion or extension or twisting or bending. Your arms should hang naturally from your shoulders, your elbows at your side. Your wrists should be relaxed, your hand in the same plane as your forearm, with your forearms parallel to your work surface. Your eyes should be level with the horizon and your chin tucked in.
Keep your work close to your body. Whether you’re lifting a heavy box of paper or typing a short email, keeping your gear close to your body reduces strain and keeps you from stretching your body into contorted positions.
Keep Your Work at the Proper Height
This is a variation of the “no reaching” principle. Your chair, desk, computer, and other gear should always be positioned at a height that matches your body.
Reduce Pressure Points
You can’t avoid pressing your fingers into your keyboard, and your butt is going to press into your chair whenever you sit down. But you want to avoid unnecessary pressure points. This doesn’t mean that you can’t comfortably support yourself. For example, a padded wrist rest can help keep your wrists in a neutral position as you type. But when your office equipment presses on your body in a less supportive way, you’ve gone from support to pressure. Classic pressure spots are at the wrist if you are resting your forearms directly on the desk surface or on the edge of your desk, and at the back of the legs if your chair’s seat pan has a high front edge.
Minimize Fatigue and Static Load
This principle comes straight from the manufacturing setting, the source of many ergonomic principles. On an assembly line, holding heavy tools for hours on end would obviously wear you out. In the office, the less-obvious hazard micro-fatigue because your leg muscles have been removed from the postural support system that holds you upright in your chair. Taking regular standing breaks can reduce this fatigue. If you use a standing workstation, the static load on your legs and hips can cause knee and low-back pain, which you can reduce by standing on a padded mat and/or elevating one foot on a small stool or other footrest.
Avoid Excessive Motion
This principle also goes back to manufacturing settings, which highly value efficiency. Applied in the office, it is related to the “no reaching” principle. One of my massage clients provides a good example. She spent a couple of months in a temporary office, where her scanner, which she used repeatedly throughout the day, was on the left side of her desk. She is right handed. So every time she used the scanner she had to awkwardly reach across her body to load documents into it. To keep excessive motion to a minimum, position commonly used tools and equipment where you can reach them gracefully and effortlessly.
Pay Attention to Details
Little things add up, especially when you do them all day. A small movement or postural distortion that might not matter if you did it for 10 or 15 minutes can leave you injured and in pain if you do it for hours on end. For example, even a small amount of reaching out for your mouse can eventually pull your shoulder forward and down, resulting in nervy pain in your arms and hands. And even the slightest up tilt of your head to peer into a poorly positioned computer monitor can leave you with headaches and a sore neck.
Take Regular Breaks
At the very least, stand up on a regular basis to disrupt the pathological effects of sitting disease. From an orthopedic perspective, it’s also important to regularly disrupt your repetitive work patterns and use your body in a different way.
Maintain a Comfortable Work Environment
A pleasant workspace enhances the effect of your physical positioning and body support. So pay attention to your physical environment. Cultivate a houseplant or two and/or arrange for a glimpse of nature outside your window. Make sure the office lighting illuminates your work area without creating glare on your computer screen. Good ventilation and heating and cooling systems support your comfort in the office, while a drafty office or an air conditioning system that chills the workplace can make you squirm and reach for a sweater. For some, a quiet environment lets you focus on your work; for those who crave stimulation, silence may be stultifying. A noisy office can be invigorating but when you need to focus can be distracting. Be aware of your environmental factors and manage them the best you can.
Adapted with permission from “Scared Sitless: The Office Fitness Book.”