Ergonomics for the modern slouch potato
Emily Kennedy MSc RHN
Slouching at our desk all day has a tremendous impact on the health of our bones and joints. Workplace ergonomics can help us improve our posture.
We’re often told to sit up straight, type with our feet flat against the floor, and keep our shoulders relaxed. Thanks to the field of ergonomics, we now have these tips—and plenty of others—that help us to keep our bones and joints healthy while on the job.
Ergonomics, as explained by the International Ergonomics Association, is the study of the way the human body interacts with its environment. Overall, ergonomists look at how to fit work into people, as opposed to having people warp themselves to fit into their work.
Workplace ergonomics and your health
According to the Work Foundation, musculoskeletal disorders such as back, neck, and arm pain cost Canadians upward of $20 billion per year. The link between most of these nonspecific pains and work—particularly seated work—is well documented. As the majority of jobs in Canada involve prolonged sitting, it stands to reason that much of ergonomics is focused on improving sitting postures and positions.
The creator of the website Are You Ergo?, Matt Gereghty explains that ergonomics provides all of us with guidelines that help prevent a number of common workplace issues, including pain in the neck, back, and shoulders; carpal tunnel syndrome; and poor posture. Are You Ergo? is dedicated to raising awareness about common but easy-to-fix problems that arise from poor ergonomics.
A reformed “slouch potato” turned professional ergonomist and occupational therapist, Gereghty knows all too well about the types of injury that can result from prolonged desk work. As a student, he lived a life of excessive sitting, slouching, resting his feet up on desks, and other typical positions he now calls “evil.” The damage he suffered as a result only took five days to compound, and this otherwise healthy young man wound up with debilitating hip pain and a bruised tail bone.
Poor ergonomics, as Gereghty can attest to, may have serious consequences for a person’s quality of life—not just for the short term, but in the long run as well. Subjecting our bodies to poor posture and other environmental stressors can cause chronic injuries that require years of treatment and wreak havoc on our quality of life.
The many facets of ergonomics
Ergonomics involves “the habits, positions, and lifestyles that make up one’s day,” says Gereghty. It considers any physical, sensory, or even social stress a work setup may have on its inhabitants.
The physical aspects of ergonomics include workspace layout as well as work routines that may cause bodily discomfort due to incorrect positioning, repetitive motion, or unnecessary twisting or leaning.
With respect to layout, specific angles determined by aspects such as the height of your desk and chair, and the placement of your computer monitor all affect the ergonomics of a workstation. For example, the backrest of a chair should be at a 90- to 100-degree angle to the floor to help reduce back and neck pain.
With respect to work routines, how long you spend on one task, how you communicate with your colleagues, or how meetings take place all impact workplace ergonomics. Social ergonomic recommendations often include more frequent breaks, or more face-to-face communication instead of instant messaging, email, or phone conversations. Gereghty is also a proponent of the walking meeting.
Sensory aspects of ergonomics range from the brightness of your desk lamp to the way the sound carries from one workstation to another. In some industries, the temperature of the work environment, or the amount of vibration or turbulence a worker experiences, can be the main factor when it comes to making work a healthier, more ergonomic place.
How to make sure you’re “ergo” at work
Working with a professional ergonomist is the best way to ensure that you minimize your risk of musculoskeletal pain due to work. An ergonomic assessment, which involves having a professional ergonomist simultaneously evaluate and adjust the ergonomics of your personal workstation and surrounding environment, takes about one hour and gets you immediate improvements to your workstation, as well as a written report for ongoing changes. Many businesses now invest in ergonomic assessments because they result in happier, healthier, and therefore more productive employees. Not a bad return on investment!
If a professional assessment is not accessible, you can also try the Ergo Tool (areyouergo.com/ergo-tool), a 15-minute online assessment designed by Gereghty to have an immediate impact on your work habits. The Ergo Tool is uniquely effective because it injects memorable humour into otherwise dry topics such as wrist angles and keyboard height. The Ergo Tool targets the most common ergonomic errors—and the quick fixes for them.
However, Gereghty’s number one tip for ensuring that you are “ergo” at work is to move. Given the aforementioned ill effects of prolonged sitting, make a point to stand, walk around, or stretch every 30 minutes. No desk, chair, or keyboard, no matter how ergonomic they claim to be, is as effective as having a walking meeting or getting into the habit of standing while talking on the phone. The risky business of sitting for too long can be stopped in its tracks with one simple ergonomic tactic: stand up and move.
Tips for every type of work
No matter what the industry, ergonomics applies. Here are some of professional ergonomist Matt Gereghty’s top tips for being more “ergo” at specific types of jobs.
If you’re at a desk ...
If you’re on your feet ...
If you’re operating a vehicle ...
Your lumbar area should be well supported, either by your car’s seat or with an external lumbar pillow (a rolled towel works too).