We’ve put together a quick guide to ergonomics in the workplace, beginning with the individual & scaling to the organization. This blog looks at what “ergonomic” means & how best practices can be implemented by individuals to create ergonomic office standards & programs.
“Ergonomics is the study of how we interact with working environments and how these interactions can be improved so wellbeing is maximized.”
(from some awesome Aussie Ergonomists)
Designing for an ergonomic office is a discipline that has been adopted by businesses & promoted by health organizations worldwide, and with good reason: it’s been clearly shown that implementing sustainable, ergonomic practices boosts employee well-being, productivity, morale & engagement. Healthier workers in a healthier workplace make for healthier results. If that isn’t persuasive, consider the risks. Over one-third of adults in the United States are obese, the average adult spends more than half the day sitting, and musculoskeletal disorders are attributed to over one-third of lost workdays.
You have the evidence & the impetus for fostering an ergonomic office: now it’s time to address the “human factors“: the individual, the job & the organization.
Ergonomic principles in practice vary from person to person, job to job; find what works for you by identifying your individual pain points and risk factors in your daily routine such as high levels of repetition, forceful exertions & sustained awkward postures. These basic guidelines in comfort design will get you started:
There are a few wild solutions on the market to combat the fact that our bodies simply aren’t meant to stay at rest for prolonged periods of time. So, here are some go-to adjustments for the sedentary screen-gazer, but make sure to get up get out & get something!
- Neck: look straight with slight, natural downward tilt while working without maintaining an awkward position or leaning forward.
- Shoulders: allow to relax & hang naturally – slouching or scrunching will result in fatigue, aches, and possible chronic conditions.
- Elbows: keep close to the body & supported at approximately a right angle (one side parallel with your spine & one side parallel with the floor).
- Wrists: remain in a neutral position (parallel to the floor, in line with forearm) while typing. Angling your wrist for a sustained period can result in an array of WMSD’s.
- Lower Back: remain upright and supported against back of seat to minimize the load on your back. Slouching down/forward as you tire compresses your spine & lumbar discs.
- Knees & Feet: keep upper legs parallel to the floor & feet resting comfortably when seated, but get up & move! Avoiding poor circulation is the goal.
Breaks & Exercise
Human bodies are mobile systems. While we may be evolving to accommodate our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, our systems need to warm-up & recover in addition to maintaining healthy lifestyle practices.
- Musculoskeletal: musculoskeletal disorders are the most frequent non-accidental work-related injury, costing over $84 billion annually in lost productivity. Periodic breaks to activate underutilized muscle groups throughout the day is incredibly effective prevention – check out this list of “deskercises”.
- Eyes: pause your task periodically and allow your eyes to focus on a point approximately 20ft. away to avoid strain & fatigue (on your head & neck as well as your vision).
- Cognitive: cognitive ergonomics is a discipline in and of itself, but allowing for a mental breather during the work day can boost your perception, attention, memory & learning.
- Remote Work & Work at Home: the phrase “At Work” rarely limits itself to describing your place of employment. As professional & personal endeavors continually adulterate one another, it’s necessary to expand the scope of your ergonomic office practices. Staring straight down at your laptop with your wrists arched in your favorite chair will not be comfortable for long. If you’re working poorly back home, you’ll probably end up taking aches back to work.
Office chairs are a major contributor to discomfort and fatigue that is attributed to work in general. Knobs, levers & a mile-long “features” sheet may be intimidating, but don’t be afraid of adjusting your multifunction chair!
- Arm Rests: adjust the height of your armrests such that your shoulders are relaxed & your forearms are parallel with the floor.
- Adjustable Lift: set chair’s height where your knees are approximately 90° with feet resting on the floor without pinching thighs.
- Seat Cushion & Pan: besides being able to sit comfortably, there should be a fist-sized gap between the back of your calf and the front of the seat cushion. Note: adjustable seat pan depth and angle don’t typically come standard.
- Back Rest: the back of your task chair’s adjustable height and angle are very helpful in improving posture & reducing fatigue – set your backrest high & forward to keep your spine aligned straightly.
- Lumbar Support. Your spine curves inward toward your lower extremities, making it difficult to support your back while seated. Lumbar support should press against your lower back while sitting up straight all the way back in the seat. If your office chair doesn’t have one built in, there are plenty of cheap, effective solutions out there.
- Swivel: increasing your reach is critical to preventing over-exertion, even in a small space. Repetitive rising & sitting motions interrupting your work are a lose/lose scenario. 5-spoke swivel bases are best for avoiding tipping.
- Tilt: tilt mechanism comes in many applications. Essentially, you’re able to lean your seat & back on a fulcrum (which is where the variation is), control the tension with which the chair leans, and lock a certain angle into position. This is more of a comfort feature, but it’s helpful to know how your tools work.
Your workstation should facilitate your productivity, not impede your work because of physical discomfort. Avoid straining & sustaining awkward positions by making some quick adjustments to the major components of your office desk.
- Work Surface: adjust height to task – for work that involves light to medium weights, position work surface just above & below elbow height, respectively. Surfaces with a matte finish minimize glare, and a thickness of 1″ is recommended.
- Keyboard & Mouse: keep frequently used equipment immediately in front of you in an area between your shoulders. Keyboard should be level with underside of elbow, angled slightly back to allow for neutral wrist positioning. Wrist rests & ergonomic keyboards are a good investment for those doing highly repetitive stationary work.
- Monitor: position at least 20″ away from eyes, angled 10-20 degrees down such that the entire screen is at the same focal distance. Minimize glare by angling away from sources of outside light & fluorescents. Screen should be sharp, bright & stable.
Ergonomic office practices in the office have been found to improve productivity, engagement & process flow while reducing errors, turnover & non-accidental injuries. A Gallup study showed that up to 77% of workers are afflicted by chronic conditions and have an above-average BMI. Can you afford not to implement ergonomic office practices into your workplace strategy?
Risk Factors & Goals
Effectively identifying potential hazards and goals to begin implementing ergonomic office practices considers the requirements of your human resources, the organization, and institutions tasked with ensuring workplace safety.
- Performance: what demands does a position regularly place on the employee? Develop task-oriented performance goals and identify risk hazards in routine responsibilities.
- Measurement: a change management initiative is nothing without quantifiable data – establish metrics for your criteria to be tracked during the implementation process. Designate a method & location for collecting this information, and plan with your team to periodically review results. Here’s a list of helpful metrics.
- Compliance: what are your responsibilities as an employer to institute safe practices & environments that promote wellness? OSHA has information about what’s obligatory in addition to resources for going above & beyond to promote a healthful workplace.
From investing in equipment for individual employees to installing environmental controls, the ROI on ergonomics has been shown to benefit entire organizations.
- Environmental Factors: lighting, noise, temperature, humidity, and circulation are all considerations to be made when setting up a workplace for ergonomic success. Don’t succumb to “sick building syndrome“.
- Space Configuration: past providing options for different work styles & tasks, consider the overall navigability of your facility setup in addition to the efficiency of regular processes & flow of work.
- Amenities: since sitting all day is literally killing us, make allowances for spaces that are devoted to workplace wellness. Making healthy food available in break rooms and easily accessible hydration stations are great steps toward a healthful culture.
An ongoing process, the integration of ergonomics into job + office design needs to be carefully planned, implemented & measured.
- Be Proactive. Designing for ergonomics should extend to job design – create job descriptions that have “biomechanical” expectations, provide ergonomics training during the onboarding process, conduct regular assessments & encourage early reporting of hazards.
- Use Data at Your Disposal. The criteria for your workplace ergonomics comes from the inhabitants – find common complaints/desires from employees to develop criteria and task-specific goals for the planning & purchasing process.
- Implementation – clear communication is compulsory. Address quick fixes immediately to lighten the perceptual load and provide tangible incentive to get on board with your office ergonomics program. Lead by example & make resources abundantly available.
Thanks For Reading!
Do You Work In An Ergonomic Office?
We’re in the business of making your workplace work as hard as you do. Wondering about what you can do to implement sustainable, ergonomic practices in your office?