Whether you go to an office every day or are one of the many people who now work from home, creating a workspace with an ergonomically correct desk, chair and computer monitor position can go a long way to prevent back, neck, wrist and shoulder pains formally known as work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
Work-related MSDs can be prevented with the proper use of ergonomics, the practice of fitting a workspace to the individual. In fact, ergonomics can help increase productivity while reducing the risk of muscle fatigue and a number of work-related MSDs, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Here’s what you need to know about organizing a work setup that supports—rather than hurts—your health.
What Is Ergonomics?
Sometimes employees are assigned to workstations and expected to work with what they’re given, says Julie Dorsey, an occupational therapist who specializes in ergonomics and an associate professor at Ithaca College in New York. Ergonomics, on the other hand, takes a different approach.
“Ergonomics is looking for ways to improve the fit between the work and the worker to support health, well-being and productivity,” says Dorsey.
This means fitting the environment to the worker and not the other way around—for example, designing workstations with the flexibility to support a variety of heights, working postures and preferences.
3 Ways Poor Office Ergonomics Can Hurt Your Health
Work-related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time, according to OSHA.
“When we work in awkward postures, have repetitive motions, have poor lighting etc., our bodies are forced to adapt, which causes strain on our muscles, joints, eyes and body as a whole,” says Dorsey.
Here are a few negative health effects that can result from poor desk ergonomics.
Many people suffer from computer vision syndrome (CVS), a combination of eye irritation, dryness, double vision and blurred vision, from working on a computer for hours on end, according to a study in the Survey of Ophthalmology. CVS can lead to headaches, as well as neck, shoulder and back pain, according to the American Optometric Association.
“Poor lighting (too much or too little ambient light and a lack of task lighting) can contribute to headaches and eye strain,” says Dorsey. “Our brain doesn’t want us to see things blurry, so we make unconscious adjustments in order to accommodate for poor lighting. People might squint or bend their neck and/or trunk forward to get closer to the monitor.”
Anti-glare filters and the correct positioning of a computer monitor may alleviate these problems.
Back and Neck Pain
“Upper back and neck discomfort is very common, and it’s sometimes accompanied by low back pain as well,” says Dorsey. “The culprit is often lack [of] a supportive chair and a desk surface that’s too high in relation to the chair (a high desk surface places the keyboard and monitor too high), though it varies by person and by workstation.”
Back pain can be caused by damaged spinal structures, which can stem from poor sitting posture and prolonged periods of sitting.
Wrist, Hand and Shoulder Pain
“Hand, wrist and shoulder pain is very common and often related to use of the mouse and keyboard,” says Dorsey. In fact, a 2004 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine of nearly 7,000 people confirmed that prolonged periods of mouse and keyboard use corresponded with the presence of wrist and hand pain conditions.
What an Ergonomic Office Looks Like
Taking the time to adjust your working area to fit your body and needs not only helps you prevent health issues, but also creates a comfortable and enjoyable space. Dorsey created the following recommendations for the ideal ergonomics of an office for the American Occupational Therapy Association.
The chair is the foundation of your workstation, so it should be the first item you choose or adjust. The ideal chair has plenty of back support, and if it’s not cushioned, add your own pillows. Your feet should rest comfortably on the floor, but using a footrest is fine, too.
The height of your desk should allow your elbows to rest at a 90-degree angle so your wrists can sit in a neutral position rather than bend upward, according to Dorsey’s recommendation. If your desk is high, sit in a higher chair or add pillows to your chair.
Your eyes should be level with the top edge of the monitor, and your monitor should be an arm’s length away from your body. If you work on a laptop, use an external keyboard and mouse so you can place the laptop on a box or stack of books, raising the screen so you can look straight at it without hunching over.
If you can, place your monitor at a 90-degree angle from a window to avoid glare. If this setup won’t work in your office space, filter the sunlight from the window with curtains. Keep overhead lighting low and use a lamp near the work area of your desk.
Also, use the 20-20-20 rule to save your eyes from strain: For every 20 minutes you stare at your work, look 20 feet away from it for 20 seconds.
Your Keyboard and Mouse
Keep the mouse close to the keyboard so you don’t have to make awkward shoulder movements to use it. Better yet, consider experimenting with an “ergonomic mouse” that allows you to keep your hand in a neutral handshake position.
Meanwhile, align the “H” key in the keyboard with the middle of your body.
Body awareness is a key factor in staying healthy while working. “When engaging in work and other daily activities, we often become so focused on the task at hand that we aren’t attending to how our body feels,” says Dorsey. “We may push through just to complete the next task, and that becomes one more task and one more, and before we know it, we’ve worked for a long stretch of time with poor posture and no breaks to readjust.”
Remember to course-correct. “Performing a quick body scan at least every hour to consider how you’re feeling can help bring attention to potential problem areas so you can make adjustments before it’s too late,” says Dorsey.
Ergonomics isn’t just about equipment and workstation setup—it’s also about our work habits and practices.