For most office workers, our allotted desk and accompanying chair are viewed as somewhere to plant our butts and store our lunch snacks and stapler while we get on with the business of whatever it is our employer requires of us. Usually, these tasks involve a computer screen, which is the main focus of our day-to-day professional lives. And that’s totally fine – unless your chair and desk are about as supportive as a bed of nails…
Ergonomics is the study of how your body interacts with the environment when you perform a task or activity. Office ergonomics focuses on workstation arrangement to prevent injury and discomfort, and includes the choice and placement of equipment such as the desk, computer screen, chair, keyboard, telephone and mouse.
We tend not to give much thought to our desk and chair beyond any immediate discomfort. But if these (and other) integral aspects of our daily life are not given proper consideration, the cumulative effects can result in injury, and perhaps even permanent damage. Back and neck pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, chronic headaches and fatigue could have their root causes in a poorly (or not at all) adjusted seating arrangement. Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) – pain and swelling, usually around a joint, associated with an ongoing, repetitive physical action – place excessive stress on joints and tendons that at first cause pain and irritation, but can lead to more severe problems.
The primary warning sign of RSIs related to desk-bound jobs is pain in the upper extremities (fingers, palms, wrists, forearms, shoulders). Alarmingly, however, you can also have severe RSI without experiencing any pain, as repetitive motions in one part of the body can affect the muscles in another part.
Fatigue, headaches, tingling, numbness, a lack of co-ordination and/or strength in your hands or upper extremities could all be signs of an impending injury.
According to Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA), absenteeism costs the SA economy up to R16 billion per year. On average, 15% to 30% of staff could be absent on any given day and 40% who provide sick notes have no diagnosis.
RSIs caused by ergonomic negligence are notoriously difficult to diagnose and, while the research on the impact of ergonomic injuries in the office is patchy at best, it’s not unreasonable (taking the OCSA data into account) to posit that these could be having a far bigger impact on absenteeism – and thus the bottom line – than employers realise.
‘It is quite difficult to quantify the prevalence of office-related RSIs as so little research has been done on this in South Africa,’ says physiotherapist Piet Nel, a director of Ergonomicsdirect, which provides consultation and products to improve workplace well-being.
‘When you look at the numbers internationally, it is definitely significant. What we are seeing is that many of the repetitive strain injuries are still not being linked to the correct cause. To use one example – people suffering from tension headaches don’t always realise that it is perhaps linked to their sustained incorrect position behind their computer at work, which in turn leads to muscle spasm, which leads to headaches. They just think they suffer from frequent headaches and don’t realise that they can in fact do something about it quite easily.’
People are also sometimes still hesitant to report these issues to their employers, he adds, as they either know that nothing will be done about it or they are concerned that it will just be seen as a weakness. There is still a stigma around not being able to cope within the working environment.
Proper body alignment at your desk isn’t only about good posture (in fact, the jury is out on whether good posture is as critical as commonly believed – it has been suggested that strengthening the muscles of your back and core through targeted exercises is far more beneficial than simply sitting straight at your computer). It’s also about your chair, which probably has the biggest impact on your body day-to-day.
According to management digest Quartz at Work, the typical office chair is required to have wheels, lumbar support and a load-bearing gas-lift leg. These are just the basics, though. ‘To counter-act the notorious pitfalls of sitting, industrial designers have been coming up with ergonomic solutions for decades, resulting in the dizzying array of styles and options.’ In truth, most of these ‘styles and options’ have negligible benefits – or, at least there is little hard evidence that they make a significant difference to one’s general health.
The main considerations are the angles of your body. Arms, thighs and feet should be parallel to the ground (or on the ground, in the case of your feet) and at right angles to your torso and shins.
Of course, the most advanced ergonomic chair in the world isn’t going to help if you sit in it for hours at a stretch, all day, every day. Getting up every 20 minutes or so, if only to answer the phone (but preferably to go for a walk) is the second-biggest criteria for avoiding the harms associated with too much sitting.
Using a standing desk sporadically throughout the day is optimal if you need to be at your screen for the majority of your working hours, but this is out of reach for most office workers due to budget constraints and a general lack of interest (and awareness) from employers – and in some instance it is just not practical for the kind of work required.
Your desk’s measurements and position aren’t quite as important as the things on it. For example, your mouse, which is possibly the most used item on your desk (apart from your keyboard), should be within easy reach and on the same surface as your keyboard, says the Mayo Clinic.
‘While typing or using your mouse, keep your wrists straight, your upper arms close to your body, and your hands at or slightly below the level of your elbows. Use keyboard shortcuts to reduce extended mouse use. If possible, adjust the sensitivity of the mouse so you can use a light touch to operate it. Alternate the hand you use to operate the mouse by moving the mouse to the other side of your keyboard.’
The Mayo Clinic also has detailed guidelines regarding the placement of the telephone (within reach, no stretching), footrest (use one if your feet don’t touch the floor), computer screen (eye level) and various other office paraphernalia.
It may all sound overly pedantic, but related RSIs have been on the rise for years and show no signs of abating. According to the US Department of Labour Survey of Health Statistics, RSIs and work-related overuse injuries are now considered a leading cause of long-term pain and physical disability worldwide.
In light of all of this information, it’s clear that far more consideration needs to be given to our daily work practices and office set-up – not only for employees’ health but for companies’ general efficiency and profitability. In addition, more research must be done to improve diagnostic methodology of work-related RSIs, as well as to find optimal ergonomic solutions for office workers.
‘There is still a general ignorance that exists within the South African environment around ergonomics,’ says Nel. ‘We are at least seeing a gradual shift as employers are slowly waking up to the benefits that better ergonomics can offer their businesses and their employees. Creating a better working environment will be to the benefit of the employees as well as the company. This in turn, will have a positive effect on the bottom line. Companies should also consider the possibility that they might be at a disadvantage to their competitors if they ignore ergonomic intervention.’