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Creating a Healthy Workspace

July 31, 2023

An office worker stretches uncomfortably at her desk.

Sitting at a desk all day can be a pain in the neck, and your workspace is likely to blame. A poorly designed desk can affect everything from your posture and your joint health to your eyesight. Isander Vargas, occupational safety officer with Atlantic Health System, shares what everyone should know about office ergonomics and how a few simple changes can boost your health and productivity.

The basics of office ergonomics

It might be hard to believe, but sitting at a desk all day puts a lot of strain on your body.

“The way you interact with your work environment, known as office ergonomics, is crucial to preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) including back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Isander.

Below he explains the five primary ergonomic risk factors to be aware of when assessing your workspace:

  1. Awkward posture: Keeping your joints in positions that increase your risk of becoming injured. Sitting with your back away from your chair or turning your head to look at a monitor are examples.
  2. Mechanical contact stress: Continuously pressing or rubbing soft tissue between or against a hard or sharp surface. Resting your forearms on a desk or sitting with the back of your knees against a seat cushion are common culprits.
  3. Force: Exerting large or small muscle groups in ways that result in swelling, fatigue, strains and sprains. Keeping a tight grip on your mouse, typing with force, stapling and carrying heavy items in one hand are common examples in an office space.
  4. Repetition: Repeating the same or similar motion with your neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists or hands every few seconds. Using a calculator, clicking with a mouse and typing can cause repetition injuries.
  5. Static loading: Holding your body in the same position for a long time. Sitting or standing for hours, looking down to read and sitting without back support are common issues in a seated work environment.

Improve your workspace

Whether you have a daily commute or work from your dining table, Isander says that a few simple changes can help transform your workspace into a more comfortable and productive environment.

  • Desk: Your elbows should be at a 90-degree angle and your wrists in line with your forearms while sitting at your workspace. Keep your shoulders relaxed and head upright, with your ears aligned to your shoulders. Use a riser or books to adjust the height of your monitor or laptop to ensure your eyes are looking at the top third of your screen.
  • Chair: Keep your feet flat on the ground or on a footrest, with your hips, knees and ankles at a 90-degree angle while sitting. An appropriate chair will ensure your thighs are supported and your back receives plenty of lumbar support. If you work from home, a rolled-up towel behind your back or a firm pillow can make a stationary chair more supportive.
  • Accessories: Keep a loose grip on your mouse and center your keyboard so that the G and H keys are aligned with your nose. If you work on a laptop, consider using an external keyboard and mouse. Using a hands-free device for long calls or meetings can reduce neck pain. A task lamp is an inexpensive way to light your workspace and prevent eye strain.

“There are many factors that can impact your health and wellbeing, and it might take some time and patience to find what works best for you and your space,” says Isander. “After making adjustments, be sure to assess the change after 30 minutes to determine whether it works for you.”

Get up and move

Isander recommends setting a reminder to take a break for five minutes every hour you are at your desk to walk around, have a quick stretch and take a sip of water. Whenever possible, switch between sitting and standing and alternate or rotate tasks to avoid repetitive motion stress.

“Frequent breaks to move around and stretch are crucial to a healthy and productive work environment,” says Isander.

To prevent eye strain or fatigue, he suggests following the 20/20/20 rule: for every 20 minutes you sit at your desk, take a break and focus on something 20 feet away from you for 20 seconds.

With more people sitting at a desk for work than ever before, it’s so important to listen to your body and pay attention to signs that a change to your work environment might be needed.

“You don’t have to suffer with neck and back pain caused by your workspace,” says Isander. “A comfortable environment is within reach, and it doesn’t have to be expensive.”

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