Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author
Life in a cubicle shouldn’t be painful.
Sure, chatty cubemates can be annoying, but your own workstation – whether it’s a cubicle or a more formal office space – shouldn’t be the cause of neck, back, shoulder, wrist or other pain. The key is ergonomics – the science of setting up your desk, chair, computer, phone and general workspace to improve efficiency, comfort and safety, and to prevent aches, pains and injuries.
“There are millions of people who go to work every day and are in chronic pain,” says Dr. Michael Bracko, a Canadian-based exercise physiologist, occupational therapist and fellow of the American Council of Sports Medicine. “They think it’s a normal process of working, and it shouldn’t be.” Dr. Bracko offers the following guidelines for setting up a safe, comfortable workstation.
Setting up your sitting down
Correct placement of video display terminal (monitor).
Your monitor should be directly in front of you, not off to the side, and the top of the screen should be at eye level (you should be looking slightly down at your monitor.) Flat-screen monitors are preferable and help reduce eye strain.
The ninety-degree rule.
When sitting at your chair, your ankles, knees, hips and elbows should all be at 90 degrees. Raise or lower your chair and/or computer terminal to achieve the correct position. Most terminals are set a little low, says Bracko, causing neck strain.
Correct keyboard placement.
Your keyboard should be situated such that your elbows are at 90 degrees and you’re not reaching too far forward. Your mouse should be at the same height as the keyboard and easy to reach.
Have a completely adjustable desk chair.
The seat should adjust up and down and the back of the chair should have an adjustable lumbar support, to maintain the spine’s natural curves. Arm rests are important for resting your elbows, in order to prevent shoulder and neck strain. The arm rests should also go up/down and in/out to fit you correctly. The chair should have five wheels for stability and balance and to allow you to move around comfortably.
Stand, move, and be merry
Take a stand.
Your work area should be designed so that you can stand up as much as possible. Sitting is hard on your back and body in general; try standing at least every 20 minutes. Stand whenever you talk on the phone, or when someone enters your workspace. Don’t wheel yourself over to a file cabinet; get up and walk.
Headsets are a must for anyone who spends a fair amount of time on the phone; tilting your head and scrunching your shoulder to hold the phone will quickly lead to neck and shoulder issues.
Stretch and move.
Get in the habit of making ankle circles, flexing and extending your knees/legs, and moving your shoulders up and down while sitting. You can set stretching exercises to pop up on your computer every hour, says Bracko, as a reminder to get up and stretch.
Lose the wires.
Several devices are extremely helpful in making your space safer and more comfortable. A wireless mouse moves with you as you adjust your posture throughout the day. Need to lean way back? No problem – the mouse goes with you. Retractable keyboards also allow you to move forward or lean back without straining to reach the keys. Flat screen monitors allow more precise adjustments — a big improvement over stacking phone books or putting your old-style monitor on a non-adjustable riser.
On your feet?
Many of these same rules apply to those who stand a lot at work. Don’t bend over excessively to reach your work surface. If possible, use a podium or other raised surface for writing and other tasks so that you can avoid having to lean forward repeatedly, which is tough on your back.
If you stand and use a computer, maintain the 90-degree rule for your elbows and place the terminal at eye level. Place anti-fatigue (thick rubber) matting on the floor where you stand. Take stretching breaks, and whether you stand or sit, give your eyes a break from the computer screen by occasionally glancing at something else.
For more information on how to prevent back pain on standing articles, check out these ten tips.
For more information on setting up a safe, comfortable work space, including tips on lighting and ventilation, read this great article from OSHA.