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Beyond standing desks: How ergonomics can help you thrive at work
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Think about how you feel during your workdays. Maybe you have pain in your neck or back and feel stiff and sore when you stand up from your desk. Perhaps fatigue and irritability set in as you try to focus on projects or meeting discussions.
While there are many factors that can influence how we feel during the day, the configuration of your work area — the place where you spend most of your time working — has a major effect on our overall health and wellbeing.
Take a close look at your work area. Now think about how you sit while working. Do your shoulders hunch forward? Is your keyboard so far from you that your arms are extended while typing? Is your chair so low that your lower back is rounded over, or so high that your feet are not flat on the floor? Does the lighting seem either too bright or too dim? Do you use a sit-stand desk, but still feel fatigue, aches, and stiffness during and after your workdays?
If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, an ergonomic assessment of your workstation and a consultation the includes your work habits may help you develop a healthier work environment. Even better, an ergonomics program that uses a proactive risk management approach is more beneficial because potential injuries, along with their costs to both employer and employees, can be avoided when identified early.
The International Ergonomics Association defines ergonomics as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data, and methods to design in order to optimize human wellbeing and overall system performance.”
That’s a pretty complex description, so put simply: ergonomics entails designing the workplace and the job to fit the person.
What can be done to lower risk of MSDs in the workplace?
It is not enough to provide monitor risers, footrests, and other equipment, and allocate budget dollars to standing desks. The ergonomic approach should address the root cause of factors contributing to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Muscles, tendons (which connect muscles to bones), ligaments (which connect bones), joints, nerves, and blood vessels can be exposed to MSDs, which can include back, neck, and shoulder pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, rotator cuff injuries, and more.
Your posture and postural habits, positioning, and movements required to do the job, and frequency of breaks, are prime considerations for MSD risk beyond the workstation configuration. Providing personalized ergonomic assessments and necessary adjustments to all employees when hired will help to increase comfort and productivity while reducing pain and injury risk.
Sit, stand, sit/stand — what’s best?
Much has been written about excessive sitting during the workday, and the short- and long-term health effects of inactivity. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that sitting for long periods of time increases risk of early death. Other studies point to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, disc degeneration, and earlier symptoms of aging. A recent study found that excessive standing is also risky in terms of joint pain and heart disease risk. The logical choice is to alternate sitting and standing during the workday, mind your posture, and incorporate stretches and movement. A good habit to form is to stand up and move for at least 30 seconds every 30 minutes.
For those who have a standing or adjustable desk, the work surface should be aligned to the individual’s height and other equipment should be ergonomically correct. While you might be able to do many workstation adjustments on your own, working with a professional ergonomist can identify issues beyond your physical desk space that could be rectified for greater comfort. For those already having symptoms such as pain and stiffness, an ergonomist can help determine the causes and give specific recommendations. In any case, periods of standing should also be augmented with periodic movement.