Get Comfortable: Be an Ergomaniac

If you crane your neck to see your monitor, bend your elbows to type or scrunch a shoulder to use the phone, you’re a victim of bad ergonomics. Potential consequences include back, neck, shoulder, wrist, elbow and foot pain, headaches and repetitive-stress injuries. New York chiropractor Michael Cocilovo estimates half his patients see him because of poorly designed workstations.

Poor ergonomics can also undermine your ability to deliver your best work. “People will be more productive and do a better job when they’re comfortable,” says Mark E. Benden, Ph.D., co-director of the Ergonomics Center at the Texas A&M School of Rural Public Health. “In the traditional office, people had to adjust to their equipment. Then we realized it was better if we made everything in the office adjust to them.” The result is office equipment, furniture and peripherals so well-designed that people can work comfortably at their desks for 12 or more hours a day.

Only one hitch: “We’ve done such a great job of making workstations adjustable,” Benden says, “that we’re seeing that sedentary behavior contribute to overall health problems like increased obesity and high blood pressure.” To enhance workplace well-being, combine ergonomically smart design with regular breaks and movement. So turn your inner ergomaniac loose (and keep healthy!) by following these guidelines in your office:

• Adjust your chair so your spine is slightly reclined, the backrest supporting your upper and lower back, your thighs parallel to the floor, your feet flat on the floor. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends a chair having a five-leg base and casters for easy movement. The armrests should support your forearms while your shoulders are relaxed and your wrists at or below elbow height.

• Choose a keyboard such as the Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 ($49.99 at Staples.com) that supports your wrists while your arms, wrists and hands stay straight (parallel to the floor). Position the mouse close to the keyboard and, to reduce the risk of repetitive-stress injuries, consider a so-called “handshake” mouse that allows you to keep your hand in a vertical position—literally a handshake orientation when operating the mouse with thumb and fingers (check out the Evoluent.com line at $99.95 to $109.95).

• Place your monitor at least an arm’s-length away with the top of your screen at or just below eye level. “What you want to prevent is having your neck in a flexed posture,” Cocilovo says. Tilt the monitor 10 to 20 degrees away from you to prevent glare.

• Focus light only where you need it—on documents and other work materials—and not on your computer monitor. OSHA’s ergonomic guidelines note that bright light shining on the display screen will wash out images, leading you to strain your eyes trying to make them out clearly. Task lamps provide the direct lighting you need, and options can be well under $50: IKEA’s ForsÅ Work Lamp ($29.99), Target’s Threshold LED Task Lamp ($41.99) and, for $14.99, the Essential Home LED Task Lamp at Kmart. To avoid eye fatigue, follow the Vision Council’s “20-20-20” rule: Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look at something 20 feet away from your monitor.

• Use a headset. If you’re still squeezing a phone between your shoulder and ear, the ’60s are calling; they want you to return their head and neck pain. You should invest in a high-quality headset such as the Plantronics Voyager Legend ($99.99 at Amazon.com); it’s comfortable, delivers stellar sound and responds to voice commands.

• Take regular breaks. “Movement is like WD-40 for your joints,” Cocilovo says. Try to get up from your desk for 10 minutes every hour or so. This doesn’t have to mean abandoning your work. Simply standing “is the single healthiest change most desk jockeys can make,” Benden says. It’s a good idea to have a second workstation in your home that’s about 40 inches high so you can work while standing. It can be a kitchen island, a breakfast bar, a living-room console. Or if you have the room and budget, consider a “stand-biased” desk with taller seating and work surface to encourage standing. Overstock.com offers the compact Safco MUV Stand-up Computer Workstation for about $200.

Benden works at a sit-stand lectern that adjusts for sitting or standing. When he stands to work, “People don’t sit when they come into my office. That’s great for them since they’ve likely been sitting all day. And it keeps meetings shorter and
more efficient.” 

After finishing this article, Los Angeles-based freelance writer Shelley Levitt went shopping for a new desk chair.

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