Executive Education

Ergonomics in the Office

Many American workers spend a majority of their time sitting at a desk and working at a computer. Office employees may suffer from a variety of illnesses and injuries due to improper workplace ergonomics, including Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders (WRMDs). These are injuries to soft tissues in the body like muscles, tendons, and nerves. If left unmanaged, poor working conditions can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, and a range of bodily pains and aches. Fortunately, there is an entire field dedicated to making workspaces comfortable and safe for employees.

The Problem           

Office work may not be the most high-risk job, but it comes with its own unique set of safety concerns. Sitting in place all day can cause eye, neck, and back strain; lifting even small boxes or pieces of furniture can result in injury; typing for hours on end can incur painful hand and wrist conditions.

When you are in engaging in repetitive activities or motions all day, the smallest things can make a difference: the height of your computer screen, the lumbar support in your chair, and the manner in which you hold your telephone. If done wrong, these tiny details can add up to a painful or stressful day of work or feeling the effects later at home.

The Solution           

Many companies choose to assess and adjust the ergonomics of their workplace with the help of companies that specialize in this field. However, if your company does not offer an ergonomics program, there are steps you can take to ensure your own comfort while you are at work.

Your chair: If you are given the option to pick your chair, select one that provides proper lumbar support and fits the curve of your back. The height of your chair should be adjusted so that your feet rest flat on either the floor or a foot stool under your desk, and your thighs are parallel to the ground. The armrests should be raised to support your arms when your shoulders are relaxed. There should be enough room between your desk and your thighs for you to sit comfortably. If you were given a chair that promotes bad posture, share that with your manager.

Your desk: If your desk is too short or your chair cannot be adjusted, set sturdy blocks under the table legs to give your legs enough space. If your wrists tend to rest on the sharp edge of your desk while you work, consider placing a soft mat or gel wrist support in front of your keyboard.

Your telephone: Holding a phone between your shoulder and ear can cause serious neck pain and injury. If you spend a lot of time on the phone, invest in a headset or use speakerphone when possible.

Your keyboard: Even the way you type and use your mouse can make a difference in your comfort. The keyboard should be directly in front of your body and the computer monitor. While typing, your wrists should be straight and your upper arms close to your body with your elbows bent at a ninety-degree angle (or slightly more). If your mouse has sensitivity settings, adjust them so that you can use small movements and a light touch. If you are able, switch mouse use between hands to relieve finger and wrist strain.

Your screen: The computer monitor should be directly in front of you with the top of the screen close to eye level (bifocal wearers can lower it a bit more).  Keep the screen at least an arm’s length away from your face to reduce eye strain.

Your desk items: Try to place necessary objects close by so that you don’t have to bend over or reach for them. If you do need to change your position to grab an item, turn your whole body or swivel your chair; twisting just your upper body can cause back injury.

An easy reminder: Ergonomics specialists suggest using A.R.M.S. as a general guide for staying healthy and comfortable during work:           

A is for adjustment and alignment: Adjust your chair and other equipment for the most comfortable use.

R is for relaxation: If you are feeling any discomfort during work, take a break to grab a glass of water or snack, or visit a coworker at their desk instead of sending an email.

M is for motion: Sitting in one position for too long can cause aches. Mix up your positions and stay moving when you can.

S is for standing and safety: Stand whenever possible, such as when you are talking on the phone or during a meeting.

Sitting stationary at a desk all day is not the healthiest lifestyle. However, office workers need not worry as long as they heed the rules of ergonomics. Remember to take frequent breaks to give your arms, hands, eyes, and back a rest. Go for a short walk, do some stretches, and refresh your body so that you can remain productive, healthy, and comfortable while working.

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David Ashworth
David Ashworth is a seasoned CEO with over 30 years of heading local, regional and global businesses – from start-ups to $4 billion companies. He has held management positions in organizations in Europe, Asia and the United States.. David holds a BA in business administration from Lady Spencer Churchill College in Oxford, England, and has attended INSEAD Business School and the Stanford Executive Program.