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Back Attack: Tips for an Ergonomic Workstation

Sitting in one place day in and day out puts all the pressure on your back. 

It’s your third crazy day in a row at work, and you’re trying to do a million things at once. As you clutch your phone to your ear with your shoulder, you swivel your chair diagonally to reach your keyboard, which is four feet away from your body because there’s a stack of papers in front of it. Gripping your mouse in anger (how could your boss have given you such an unreasonable deadline?), you feel your entire body crying out in protest—from your forearms to your knuckles, from your neck all the way down your spine. Your back is a road map of knots, your carpal tunnel is raging, and you’d drain your entire 401(k) for a good massage right now. 

This scenario isn’t just a work emergency—it’s an ergo-mergency, and it’s happened to most of us. It’s hard not to get caught up in a stressful moment at work—when you have a last-minute presentation to deliver, a pivotal meeting with a prospective client, or five supervisors to accommodate—but the physical pain that results from your multitasking contortions can prove much more debilitating than a temporary business predicament. Establishing an ergonomic workstation is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your body from daily strain and avert long-term ailments. From the type of chair you use to the way your keyboard is positioned, having the right equipment at the proper angles can liberate you from your ten-Advil-a-day habit and all those nights you spend soaking your sore muscles in the bathtub. 

Getting Started: The Gear
Chair
The backbone (ahem) of any ergonomic workstation is a good office chair. For as much time as we spend seated, we often take for granted just how much stress our spines withstand on a daily basis. However, anyone who’s forced to spend prolonged periods in an uncomfortable seat at work quickly begins to covet high-quality chairs. The first choice of many companies with larger budgets is the Aeron Chair, by Herman Miller, but there are plenty of other back-friendly options out there. The best office chairs:

  • Have a height-adjustable lumbar support that fits the curve of your lower back
  • Have a five-point swivel base and wheels
  • Have adjustable armrests that support your forearms when your elbows are bent ninety degrees
  • Have a stable tilt feature that allows you to lean back slightly when seated; a 120-degree angle between your thighs and spine is ideal
  • Can be adjusted to different heights and angles to reach your desk, keyboard, and mouse (and if raising your chair to the height of your desk means your feet no longer touch the ground, invest in a footrest—your feet should always be flat on the ground or another surface, never dangling) 

Monitor
Once you’ve selected the right chair for your body, move on to your monitor. If you have a standard-size monitor, it should be straight ahead of you and your eyes should be level with the top of the screen. The middle of the screen should be fifteen degrees below your line of vision and at least twenty inches away from your eyes; you should be able to read the screen without moving your head, neck, or torso forward or backward.   

Keyboard and Mouse
If you spend all day typing, protecting your forearms and wrists from repetitive stress injuries should be one of your primary objectives. Always maintain a neutral body posture, with your elbows at the same height as your keyboard and your arms parallel to your thighs. In addition, your wrists should never have to bend up or down while you type but should be level with your elbows and your keyboard. If you can’t adjust your chair or your work surface to ensure that your wrists remain flat, try a keyboard tray. The tray should be height- and tilt-adjustable and leave plenty of room for your legs to fit underneath. 

Lighting
Ergonomic lighting varies, depending on what your specific job is. People who work mostly with printed materials should have bright lights that cover a large area, while those with computer-intensive jobs should dim overhead lighting and rely more on bright, focused desk lamps that include a hood or filter. In both cases, the location, angle, and intensity of the light sources should be adjustable. 

For more information, the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) offers a comprehensive checklist of the criteria for ergonomic workstations. 

Get a Move On
No matter how premium your equipment is, it won’t do you much good if you sit at your workstation for hours on end without ever stretching your muscles and getting your circulation going. No matter how busy you are, make a point of getting up and walking around every thirty minutes or so—refill your water glass, touch your toes, or take a lap around the office. Supplement these activities by taking one- to two-minute microbreaks throughout the day. You don’t have to leave your desk, but if you’ve been typing for a long time, give your fingers and your eyes a rest by stretching your hands and focusing your vision on a faraway point; or if you’ve been hunched over paperwork, stand up and ease the strain on your neck.   

The Numbers Don’t Lie
In a 2006 study by the Opinion Research Corporation (ORC) and Steelcase, an office-supplies manufacturer, 77 percent of seven hundred U.S. office workers surveyed claimed ergonomic workplaces were important, 81 percent believed ergonomic workplaces increased productivity, and more than 40 percent thought their offices did not provide sufficient ergonomic options. Frustration with subpar workstations aside, these statistics indicate that ergonomics are a concern for much of the American workforce—as well they should be. Setting up an ergonomic workplace may seem time-consuming and costly, but think about it this way: if you spend as much time at your office as you do at home, your investment in a quality chair and ergonomic accessories pays for itself in a relatively short period of time—and it’s a whole lot cheaper than spinal surgery.

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