There are plenty of gadgets you can buy to make spending every day at your desk or in a cube. But how exactly are you supposed to set all that stuff up to ensure those excellent ergonomics? Read on…
By Paul Mah
Health is wealth, says the old adage. Unfortunately, the age of digitalization means that more people than ever hunch over PCs from dawn to dusk. Many of them eventually suffer physical ailments such as lower back pain, neck pain, eye strain and even wrist pain that stems from poor postures or repetitive stress injuries (RSI).
As a result, many people are now concerned about ergonomics and are becoming aware of the importance of a well-designed desk and work area. In addition, vendors are now offering gadgets, IT equipment and office furniture designed with ergonomics in mind.
Here’s a look at the ideal working posture, along with some suggestions about how to set up and ergonomic work area.
The ideal work posture
Anchoring the best practices on how to set up an ergonomic workstation are various studies conducted to determine the best posture for someone sitting at a desk and working on a PC. Some common denominators that have emerged include having the top of the display aligned with ones’ eyes or slightly lower, and placing the monitor about an arm’s length away — and positioned at an angle that doesn’t introduce glare.
Your chair should offer adequate back support and should be at a height where it’s possible to keep your feet flat on the ground. When typing at a desk, you wrists should be in a straight line with your forearms to reduce the risks of RSI.
The diagram below, from “A Guide to Healthy Computing” (published by Microsoft and reproduced here with permission), illustrates these points with a visual guide to what a properly set up ergonomic workstation should look like.
Putting it together
Though the basics of good ergonomics look easy, the truth is that it’s not always so simple to get real-world furniture and IT equipment to conform to the ideal outlined in the illustration. With this in mind, let’s take a look at various components of your workstation.
Your desk, keyboard and monitor
If you can choose your own monitor, look for one with an adjustable stand, such as many of Dell’s business-centric monitors. If you don’t do work that requires sharp screen images, such as desktop publishing or graphic design, you might also consider a monitor with a matte screen, which would cut down on glare and cause less eye strain than other screens — though matte screens are only an option with LCD displays.
Whatever type of display you go with, try to position your desk and the display itself so that the screen doesn’t catch direct light from a window or indoor lighting. That will help avoid glare and thereby reduce the strain on your eyes.
One way to make sure you can position your display exactly as you like it is to use a desk mount with an adjustable arm. Such products are offered by a variety of device makers. Those from Ergotron, for example, clip to the edge of the desk or install over a grommet hole and offer a wide range of motion so you can position your screen exactly where you need it to be. (Another advantage of monitor arms is that they allow you to push your monitor out of the way to free up additional desk space when you need it.)
Laptop users face unique ergonomic challenges, especially when it comes to screen positioning. If your laptop is just sitting on your desk, the screen will be in an unergonomic position way below eye level. Moreover, typing on a laptop can be stressful on your hands because the built-in keyboards are often flat, shallow and cramped. One way to improve the setup is to use an external keyboard and mouse and put the laptop on a stand, such as the TwelveSouth HiRise for Mac, to raise the screen to a more convenient height.
If you spend quite a bit of time at your desk, it would be a good idea to get an ergonomic chair that provides good support for your lower back. A good chair provides more comfort for prolonged sitting and helps to reduce the risk of back strain or injury. If your options are limited, you should at least try to get a chair with an adjustable seatback.
If your employer — or you — has no budget for a new chair, an alternative is to buy an ergonomic backrest and put it on your existing chair. One option is the Kensington SmartFit Conform Back Rest, which fits on existing chairs and offers four adjustable settings that the company claims will offer the maximum support for the spine.
Another way to improve the ergonomics of an existing work area without spending a lot of money is to get a footrest. A footrest can be especially helpful when the only way to get your wrist parallel with your keyboard is to raise the height of your chair to the point where you can’t rest your feet on the ground. Elevating your feet in such a situation keeps your knees bent at an optimal angle, which helps ensure that blood circulation is not restricted.
Your keyboard, mouse and other tools of the trade
Many computer users overlook the importance of the keyboard and mouse to workstation ergonomics. Some keyboard designs may force people to position their wrists at an unnatural angle. And right-handers may find that keyboards with number pads exacerbate the situation by forcing them to hold the mouse at an off-center position to the right.
Some vendors have tried to address that problem by offering keyboards that are split in two, with the keys positioned on an arc. These models often don’t include an extension on the right with dedicated number keys, and instead may be sold with separate number pads. One example is the keyboard that Microsoft sells in its Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop system, which includes a wireless keyboard, number pad and mouse. Keyboards like the Sculpt model take some getting used to, but you may find that the effect is a more natural position that preempts the advent of RSI.
What works best when it comes to the mouse can vary depending on whether you’re left-handed or right-handed, and your preferred grip type, the size of your hands and your physique. Some users of ergonomic mice — such as the ones from Evoluent, which feature vertical grips — say they help relieve or even eradicate discomfort or pain in their wrists or forearms.
Regardless of what style of keyboard or mouse that you opt for, wireless models — like the Logitech MX Master mouse — may offer more flexibility, though you’ll periodically have to change batteries or to recharge them. An adjustable keyboard tray may also help to keep your wrists and forearms in the proper position.
It may also be worth considering a multiple-monitor workstation. The additional screen space could help reduce stress on your wrist by cutting down on the amount of mouse movements and clicks you need to sift through overlapping application windows.
Another way to reduce the risk of RSI, is to use speech recognition software to cut down on the amount of typing and mousing you have to do. Nuance, maker of the Dragon line of speech-recognition systems, offers tools designed to give you the ability to create a totally hands-free workflow. If you go that route, you might want to use a headset with a microphone to capture your speech. There are plenty of headsets to choose from; one option is the Plantronics Voyager Focus UC, which is a comfortable wireless model with an adjustable microphone boom.
While one of the core tenets of office ergonomics is to sit at 90-degree angle, there is ample evidence that sitting still for long hours a day is not healthy, so you might want to explore the possibility of moving to an adjustable-height desk that allows you to alternate between sitting and standing during the workday.
There are two main categories of such desks: motorized models, such as those from Uplift Desk, which must be plugged into wall sockets, and models that are adjusted manually. Basic motorized desks typically come with simple “up” and “down” buttons, while more sophisticated models may have programmable buttons for specific positions or even digital displays that show the height of the desk.
The majority of manual adjustable desks are equipped with cranks that raise or lower the desktop to the desired height. However, there are some that don’t have cranks and instead feature a mechanism that allows the user to simple pull the desktop to the desired height, at which point it is secured with an integrated brake. Ergotron offers a line of non-crank adjustable desks.
One way to get the advantages of an adjustable-height workstation without buying a new desk is to get an adjustable monitor-and-keyboard holder that can be mounted on your existing desk. Again, Ergotron offers several products for retrofitting existing desks, including desks with narrow depths, though a quick search on Amazon reveals a bunch of similar offerings.
Ultimately, hardware is only part of the solution. There’s no substitute from taking regular breaks to stretch and walk around. You can also periodically alternate tasks — instead of, say, typing a document, you could switch to reading a report or dictating an email message with speech-recognition software. Most of all, remember that nothing quite beats adopting a healthy, non-sedentary lifestyle outside the office.