Work station set up and ergonomics is an important aspect of many people's lives. Wether working at a fixed work station, merging to a standing desk or sitting at a coffee shop working from your laptop, there are some tips you need to know to get the most out of your productivity and your body.
Quentin Christensen a bachelor in Applied Science (Computer Science and Software Engineering) from Swinburne University, Australia. Quentin has written computer software and mobile apps for a range of platforms - most recently RapiTap! on Android. Quentin has taught IT classes and written accredited and non-accredited training material with a large disability organisation for over ten years within Australia.
Currently, Quentin is writing a new book called "Making Windows 10 Easier to See" which is designed to help users get the most out of Windows 10. In particularly, the aim is to aid setting up the computer to be easy to use and easy to see.
I am very excited that Quentin has decided to share his advice on this blog as it addresses so many of the questions people commonly ask about workstation set up. The take home messages is that sitting with perfect posture is no longer the best way to minimise risk of injury, standing desks take time to acclimatise to, and the most important word to remember is comfort.
Using the computer comfortably
There are several aspects that need to be considered when striving for the most comfortable, healthy and safe computer set up:
- Adjusting your chair
- Keyboard & mouse
- Monitor placement
- Using a laptop
- Regular movement breaks
Regularly sitting at a desk using a computer for long periods of time is one of the worst things you can do for your body:
- Repetitive and unnatural movements such as typing and holding a mouse extensively can lead to RSI and Carpel Tunnel Syndrome.
- Sitting with a poor posture leads to back, neck and shoulder pain.
- Improper lighting, glare and staring at the screen lead to eye fatigue and headaches.
- Sitting for long periods of time regularly (regardless of posture) over years can contribute to other health problems such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Most of us already know this, but there are things you can do to minimise the impact and make the experience more comfortable. Not only does having a well set-up work area help minimise the potential adverse health effects of prolonged computer use, but being more comfortable makes you more relaxed which reduces stress and in turn makes you able to concentrate better and be more productive in the time you are on the computer.
Adjusting your chair
Having a chair which is properly adjusted is one of the most important aspects of a healthy working area. For most users an adjustable hydraulic chair is the easiest and cheapest way to ensure a comfortable and healthy seating position.
When adjusting your chair, you want to sit so that:
- Your hips are as far back in the chair as they can go.
- Your knees are at the same height as your hips (or slightly lower).
- Your feet should be slightly ahead of your knees so your knees are bent no less than 90 degrees.
- Your feet are flat on the floor.
- If your chair is the right size a foot rest should not be required.
- Your lower back is supported.
The new message about sitting comfortably is to recognise your personal preferences for sitting postures and to allow yourself to just sit where it feels right. Want to cross your legs, sit on one leg, slouch, lean forward, sit up straight? That's ok - if these postures feel comfortable then your body is obviously happy resting in them. But they become harmful when you sit in the same posture for too long. Change postures every 20-30 minutes to help bring new blood flow and movement to your body's tissues.
If you are looking to purchase a new chair, there are a number of good guides to assist you online (see resources section). Some of the main criteria to keep in mind are:
- Can you adjust the seat height?
- Is the seat wide and deep enough to accommodate you?
- Most good chairs can be raised and lowered to suit different users, but remember they come in different sizes too.
- Does the seat back have lumbar support?
- The lower back naturally curves in and sitting for long periods without support can lead to slouching.
- Is the lumbar support comfortable?
- If it is not and is too hard you will tend to lean forward out of your chair defeating the purpose of it.
- If you don't have lumbar support - fold up a small towel or cardigan and place it in the upper part of your lower back. For women, this is generally just below the level of the bra strap.
- Is the backrest stable? Does it bounce back when you lean into it?
- This is great if you like leaning backwards. If not, you'll avoid resting on the backrest because it moves to far. Many chairs have a locking mechanism which allows the backrest to move or be locked in place. Pick what works for you.
- Is the chair stable when you move?
- At least a five pedestal base with smooth castors will allow safe movement without tipping.
- Is the floor suitable for castors?
- If using the chair on thick carpet, a chair mat may be required, large enough to not slip off the edges.
- Do you need armrests?
- Ensure that when you are sitting at your desk typing that the armrests do not hit the desk. Armrests hitting the desk can cause you to sit further back than you should and lean forward.
- One option could be having space to move your keyboard out of the way when not in use and resting your elbows on the desk.
- What shoes do you wear?
- For Women who wear heels, ensure you take these off when you sit at your desk to allow for the best posture at your ankles. High heels will inevitably create more hip flexion in sitting which loads both the hip joints and lumbar spine. You can have the perfect chair set up and just be wearing the wrong footwear....
Key board and mouse
Using a keyboard is quite unnatural and a strain for many typists. Injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome and RSI are common among those who type repetitively. There are some keyboards which are designed to be more ergonomic by splitting the keyboard in half, allowing your hands and wrists to sit at a much more relaxed and natural angle. These keyboards are much more comfortable and very beneficial, however be aware that they are designed for touch typing.
When using the computer, it is best to sit so that:
- Sit directly in front of your keyboard, with elbows at 90 degrees and forearms parallel to the floor is a common rule.
- You are able to type comfortably with your shoulders back and relaxed, elbows by your sides and wrists in line with your arm and the back of your hand.
- A desk which allows you to move the keyboard out of the way when not in use is ideal if you need to have room to sketch or make (handwritten) notes.
When using your mouse, the same considerations apply:
- Your mouse (if you use one) is positioned next to your keyboard.
- Ensure your mouse is not too large to hold comfortably.
- Ensure any other objects (phone, notepad, reference books) are all within easy reach so you do not need to lean or twist.
Monitor & Documents
Staring at a screen for long periods of time is a big contributor to visual fatigue and headaches. There are a number of things which can be done to make viewing the computer monitor more comfortable:
- The centre of focus should be in front of your keyboard. If you just have a screen it will be in the centre. If you have a document holder too, it can be beneath the screen or placed to the side.
- Set the height of the monitor so that the top of the screen is near eye level or at least ensure the bottom of the screen can be read without a marked inclination of the head.
- Those wearing bi-focual or multi-focal glasses may need the screen slightly lower.
- Set the eye-to-screen distance at the distance that permits you to most easily focus on the screen. Usually this will be within an arm's length.
- If using a very large screen, ensure that you can see all of it with minimal head movement.
- Consider making the print larger if you're straining your eyes.
Improper lighting and glare are big contributors to visual fatigue and headaches when using the computer:
- Minimise glare from windows by using curtains or placing screen at right angles to windows.
- Use light shades and / or adjust the vertical angle of the screen to reduce glare from overhead lights.
- By default, most apps use black text on a white background. This presents information the same as it will appear when you print it, however on a backlit surface such as a computer screen, this produces a lot of glare. Using a “high contrast” colour scheme or light text on a dark background reduces glare and makes everything easier to see.
- Lowering the screen brightness not only reduces glare, but it also uses less power. On a laptop, this translates to more use between charges.
- Ensure you regularly (every ten minutes at least) look away from the monitor, and ideally focus on something at a distance, for instance out a window.
- When using the computer, try to be conscious of blinking occasionally to minimise dry and irritated eyes.
Using a laptop
Laptops are designed to be small and compact, and as such are not ergonomically designed to be used for long periods of time like desktop computers. One of the biggest issues is that the monitor and keyboard are so close together, they cannot both be in a good position for the user at the same time. The best option is to use a seperate monitor and / or keyboard attached to your laptop. Many laptops have provision for a docking station.
If it is not possible to use a docking station, or for when you are away from your desk, other things you can do to increase your comfort are:
- Using a separate keyboard is the next best option.
- The laptop can be positioned on a special stand or holder which puts the screen at eye height and lets you sit the keyboard on the desk.
- Always try to use your laptop at a desk rather than on a couch or in bed. As comfortable as they are, they are designed for relaxing or laying down, not sitting and working. A chair which allows you to recline slightly can help relieve strain.
- If you regularly work between two places (eg your home and office), having a power cable and external keyboard etc at each location reduces the amount you have to carry and get a supportive backpack.
Regular movement breaks
One aspect of working at a desk all day which is being increasingly criticised, is sitting all day. It is linked with obesity and diabetes and research has found that nothing you do can undo the effects, even if you spend half an hour in the gym each day. One solution is the standing desk, however standing all day has its health issues as well. One logical solution then is standing for part of the day and sitting for part of the day. While not everyone will be able to access an adjustable desk which alternates between sitting and standing height, one thing we all should do, is take regular breaks and move.
- Head / Neck exercises:
- Move back to the central position, then turn your head as far to the right as you can, hold for five seconds, repeat on the left side.
- Tuck your chin in, creating a double chin. Hold for five seconds. Repeat.
- Hands and arms:
- Clench your hands into fists.
- Stretch your hand straight, fingers separated.
- Hold your hands in front of you, palms up as if accepting a box.
- Turn your hands palms down and hold.
- Rest your right hand on your left shoulder. Grip your right elbow with your left hand. With your left hand, push your right elbow towards your left shoulder.
- Feet and legs:
- Stretch your legs out in front of you. Rest the back of your heels on the floor, stretch your toes up and back towards you, then point them away.
- Keeping your legs straight, try and touch your toes.
- Stretch one foot out in front of you, rotate foot slowly from the ankle, then reverse.
- Back and shoulders:
- Stand tall with feet shoulder width apart and your shoulders back. Put your hands on your hips and lean to the left as far as you can.
- From the same position, gently lean backwards.
- Lace your fingers together, then stretch your arms up above your head, palms up.
In summary, being comfortable at your desk not only makes it easier to concentrate and get what you are done faster and with less frustration, it can also lessen the risk of ongoing health issues. Having a suitable, well adjusted chair, positioned directly in front of your monitor, keyboard and mouse is very important. Learning to touch type. Sit so that most of your joints are at right angles or slightly more relaxed, and being able to comfortably see the screen without glare are key recommendations. Ergonomic laptop setup is difficult so try to avoid prolonged use. Most of all, be sure to move regularly and take advantage of the quick stretches listed here to stay refreshed and energised throughout the day.
General ergonomics & workstation setup:
Sitting for too long:
Productivity impact of work station comfort:
Choosing a chair:
Typing vs Dictating:
Benefits of keeping a journal: