As ergonomists, we often receive requests from individuals in discomfort who feel that the answer to their pain is a new chair, a split keyboard, or a cool ergonomic mouse. Although there are times when each of these items can help, the cause of discomfort often lies in the posture of the user, the positioning of their existing equipment and/or the amount of stretch breaks they perform throughout the day. We believe that injury prevention can be encapsulated into 3 simple ideas:
- Prepare and Maintain the Body
- Prepare the Work Area and Equipment and,
- Healthy Movement, with proper postures and movement patterns.
Over the course of this 3 part blog post, we’ll explore each of these ideas in more detail and will guide the reader towards a greater understanding of how to ‘Give your body what it needs…and still get your work done!’
Prepare and Maintain the Body
We’ve all seen the media headlines warning us that “Sitting is the New Smoking”. The evidence is irrefutable -- the human body was designed to move! Even if the workstation and equipment are set-up correctly, if the worker rarely ever changes their posture throughout the day, they will often experience discomfort. We cannot expect to sit in the same position for 8 hours/day without developing some aches and pains.
While there may be some benefits to sit/stand stations (stay tuned for a future blog post on that topic), the key issue with prolonged sitting is the static positioning. Preventing discomfort is all about injecting movement into our day, and even at a seated workstation there are lots of ways to do that.
Check out the following ideas:
- Start the day right with some exercise to get the blood flowing, lubricate joints and warm up muscles that will be required to perform constant activity throughout the day. While people don’t tend the think that office work is very demanding, there is significant endurance required from our postural muscles to sit through most of the day and high levels of repetition from the small muscles in the hands, arms and wrists to allow us to do all the typing and mousing that typically makes up computer work.
- If getting up early to work out isn’t your thing, try those old stand-bys of parking a little further away to get a bit of a walk in before arriving at the office or getting off the elevator a couple of floors below your office and walking the last few flights. Even standing at your desk and performing some shoulder shrugs and a few hip hinges before sitting down can have a positive impact.
- As the day progresses we drain our reserve capacities and need to top things up with regular microbreaks for a stretch and change of position. Ideally we want to get up from our desk and stretch every hour. The types of stretches that you do aren’t as important as the regular interruption of the seated position.
I’m pre-thinking your responses to the point above…here are your answers:
- Yes, we are all busy. Yes, I know you think you don’t have time to stretch but studies on various workplace stretching programs consistently show, not only a reduction in discomfort and increased well being with stretching, but there is also an increase in productivity! There you go – stretching regularly during the day will help you get your work done sooner. It’s a win-win!!
Don’t believe me? Then check this out.
- Yes, I know you have good intentions to stretch but you forget and suddenly 4 hours have gone by and you haven’t moved. If that’s the case then maybe you should try some stretch break reminder software. There are some pretty decent free ones on the market like: http://www.workrave.org
Some of you might have a company firewall that prevents you from loading external software. If that’s the case then put a reminder in your calendar that’s set to repeat every hour forever that says “stretch”. Yes, it will get annoying, but it will also remind you!
- I know it can be embarrassing to stand up in a cube farm and stretch in front of your colleagues, so why not enlist a few of them to join you? You’re much more likely to carry on with the habit if you have a stretch buddy! If you can’t bring yourself to demonstrate your commitment to healthy working in front of your colleagues, you can certainly find some seated stretches that you can do below the partitions around your cube; and while it’s not as good as standing it’s better than nothing!
Apart from deliberate stretch breaks every hour we should all be taking frequent shorter microbreaks that interrupt potentially static or non-neutral postures, but don’t interrupt the flow of the work. Here are a few examples:
- Set your chair into the rocking mode and rock back whenever you are thinking or on the phone or reading something on-line (basically any time you don’t need to access the keyboard or mouse). Pushing back in the chair activates your leg muscles, which in turn increases your circulation and leaning back will change your back and lower body position. Use it as a chance to reset your posture when you return to tying or mousing as well.
WARNING – Make sure the rock tension of your chair is suitable for your body weight!! The tension control knob is typically under the seat pan of the chair (where you would never see it unless you looked). Clockwise stiffens the tension and counter-clockwise loosens it. The chair should be adequately stiff so that when you are sitting relaxed it holds you firmly, but when you push with your legs it’s not much effort to rock back.
- Whenever you are not actively typing or mousing, release the mouse and keyboard and rest on the 5th finger sides of your hands with palms facing inwards. This is the neutral position for the forearm and wrist, and rolling into this position, even for a few seconds at a time whenever you’re not actively clicking interrupts static gripping, static (and potentially non-neutral) wrist postures. It also interrupts any compression on the underside of your wrists (where the carpal tunnel is located). This one is definitely a habit you will have to work on, but the gains are well worth it in terms of reduced wear and tear on the forearms, wrists and hands. So any time you are reading, thinking, waiting for something to load or basically staring at the monitor without typing or mousing, roll into this upper extremity microbreak position.
Remember it’s all about looking for movement opportunities in your workday. Here are a few more ideas, but I’m sure you can come up with lots on your own:
- Keeping a small glass of water on your desk instead of a 2L bottle, so you have to get up regularly to refill it.
- Make it a point at least once a day to walk to a colleague’s cube to ask a question rather than calling or emailing.
- Consider an outside walking meeting for a small group or one-on-one if the weather is good.
- Stand when using the phone, if you don’t need the computer at the same time.
- Stand up to greet any visitors to your office or cubicle and have a face to face standing up conversation with them.
- Go outside at lunch time and take a short refresh walk
- If working from home, stand and change positions frequently. Try pacing around or sitting outside for a teleconference.