How to Set Up a Feel-Good Office
Use simple ergonomics to organize a work space that doesn't hurt your body
Does hunching over a desk or device all day make you feel like one of the walking dead? If so, you’re not alone.
Working in an office environment is not a natural activity of the human body. Sitting in a chair creates all manner of stress on the back, legs and circulatory system, according to the National Institutes of Health. It can result in chronic musculoskeletal problems including back pain, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. In 2010, such problems caused more than 20,000 office employees to stay away from work, typically for about 11 days, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Fortunately, a little knowledge can go a long way. Office workers who receive training in ergonomics — the study of workplace efficiency — tend to improve their work habits and suffer from fewer injuries. To enjoy the benefits of a safe and healthy workstation, start with the right equipment and arrange it in a way that gives your body the best chance of tolerating those long hours without complaint.
Adjustments. Highly adjustable chairs are more expensive, but your health is worth it. The ability to change the height and angle of each chair part will help fit it to your body. Look for levers or buttons that control base height, pan tilt and slide, backrest angle, armrest height and width and tilt of the entire chair.
Seat pan. Dense padding helps to cushion your bottom and support your body weight properly. The front of the pan should slope down slightly and stop a few inches behind your knees to reduce pressure on your thighs, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It should not be so high off the ground that your feet cannot rest flat on the floor. Otherwise, place a box, cushion or other object under your feet.
Backrest. It must support your lumbar (lower back) region, the weakest part of your back. If not, place a small cushion or pillow between it and you. It should also support your upper back and have a comfortable overall curve.
Casters. For stability, casters should be arranged on a five-point base, NIH recommends. Most casters are designed for carpeting, but soft versions for use on linoleum floors are available. If you use a stool, look for one with rubber locks to keep it from tipping over.
Size. The desktop should be deep enough front-to-back to place a computer monitor about an arm’s length from your eyes. You also will need enough space for a keyboard, mouse and wrist rest.
Height. Optimum is 20 to 28 inches, depending on your height, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). If it is too tall for typing comfortably, attach an adjustable keyboard tray to the underside of the desktop. (This may not work if there is front-center drawer.) Avoid using kitchen counters or dining tables, which are usually too high.
Finish. Avoid shiny or glass tops because the glare will tire your eyes, OSHA says. Edges should be rounded, because a sharp edge will dig into your wrist or arm when you lean into it.
Underside. It should have enough free space for you to move your feet and knees around in different positions. Don’t use it as a storage space — your legs are more important that your boxes.
Your computer equipment
Monitor. It should be large enough to view comfortably, usually 15 to 20 inches measured diagonally. To protect your neck, the top of the viewing screen should sit level with your eyes, or a little lower if you wear bifocals, NIH says. Some monitors allow you to adjust the angle, ideally 10 to 20 degrees backward from vertical. If not, and if it tilts too far forward, try placing a small object under the monitor stand to manually tilt it. Just make sure that the monitor remains stable and won’t fall over.
Keyboard. If it has adjustable legs underneath, raise or lower them to create an angle that allows you to type without bending your wrists. If you work under dim lighting conditions, try one with glow-in-the-dark keys.
Does the keyboard's attached numeric keypad keep your mouse too far to the right to hold easily? Replace it with a keyboard that has no keypad, then buy a stand-alone keypad. (Lefties are off the hook for this.)
Wrist rest. Place it in front of your keyboard to give your hands somewhere to relax while typing. OSHA says it should be soft to the touch but firm enough to hold your hand’s weight, plus more-or-less fit the contour of your keyboard. Many keyboards have a built-in rest, although some people find them hard and uncomfortable.
Pointing device. Numerous styles exist, from traditional mice to “pen” models. Choose one that fits the size and contour of your hand or fingers. Better yet, learn to use the device in both left and right hands to give each side of your body a periodic break.
Portable devices. Laptops and tablets are not ergonomically friendly because they are designed for primarily for portability, not comfort. If you plan on using one for long periods of time, set up a separate keyboard and wrist rest. If you have access to a desk monitor, attach it to your device as well.
The type of lighting you need depends upon the type of work you do.
With computers. Staring at a monitor for long periods of time will strain the eyes. Dim the room lights and adjust the monitor’s brightness level. To minimize screen glare, reposition the lights away from your work area, adjust the monitor’s angle or attach a glare filter.
Without computers. When reading printed matter or working with art materials, do just the opposite, turning up the lights and pointing them at or near your work area, OSHA says. If you go back-and-forth between different tasks, install a dimmer switch for fixed lights. Then purchase a set of portable lamps with hoods, filters or shades — “goose neck” lamps offer a versatile and inexpensive option.
Walls and ceilings. Paint them a medium or dark color with a matte or flat finish. If you’re stuck with shiny walls, invest in décor to cover some of the wall area.
OSHA says you should sit in a comfortable, upright position facing the computer and desk without twisting your torso. Your wrists should be straight, your feet flat on the floor and your forearms and thighs parallel to the floor. Avoid sitting in a position that stresses or impedes circulation to any part of your body.
That said, don't keep your body in the same sitting position all day long. The NIH says to stay limber and comfortable by periodically playing with the chair controls, moving your legs around, and standing up for a stretch.
Hopefully, these guidelines will help you to create an office that serves the needs of your body. Discuss personal medical issues with your physician, add a dose of common sense and enjoy your workday.