How to choose a desk that’s ergonomic

So you’re at the computer quite a bit, right?  And you’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking which you’re concerned about.  You may also be starting to feel that your posture is less than ideal and that your neck/shoulder/wrist/back is starting to bother you.  So what can you do?1206_HP_FF_NP08

Getting a desk that’s ergonomic is one of the most important things you can do.  Your desk height can determine how much you stand, how much you sit, how ideal your keyboarding and mousing posture is, and how good your body feels.  It’s important to get your desk height right so you can feel comfortable and productive at work.

Most fixed height desks today still remain within the standard 28-30” range that was chosen with paperwork and handwriting in mind for the offices of the past.  When computers were introduced, desk height did not change, even though ergonomically, it should have.

Ergonomics aims to achieve the most neutral, comfortable position for your body, so that you can reduce the strain placed on your joints and muscles.  When you are using your keyboard and mouse for computer work, the most neutral posture is one where your elbows are at 90 degrees of flexion resting at your sides, with your forearms parallel to the ground.  This height is going to be different for everyone depending on their height and arm length.

To achieve proper desk height, we can do one of two things:  we can measure everyone and custom build desks according to the height they need, or we can have height adjustable desks.  The best way is the latter for the following reasons:  fixed desk height only benefits the person it was made for and can’t be adjusted for others; fixed desk height does not accommodate comfortably for both sitting and standing – only one or the other; and fixed height does not allow for any other office activities such as writing or reading because the height that is needed for those activities is 2-3” above elbow height.

Also, a drawback specific to a fixed standing height desk is the type of chair that is needed for sitting.  A chair of a higher height with a foot ring is needed, but this type of chair is uncomfortable for users.  This is because there is only one position available for the legs – on the foot ring.  Users can’t place their feet anywhere else because they don’t touch the floor.  Also, the foot ring is usually too low and not wide enough, placing pressure on the backs of the thighs and forcing the using to sit forward in their chair which strains the back and neck.

Height adjustable desks are most effective when they can lower for sitting and rise for standing.  The height adjustability should be electric, not crank-style, because it’s too time consuming to crank the desk up and down several times throughout the day – people just won’t do it.  A good sit-stand ratio to follow throughout the day is 45-60 minutes of sitting, followed by 15-20 minutes of standing.  If that’s the case, you will be adjusting your desk up to 10 times a day so you want it to be quick and painless.

When choosing a height adjustable desk, it’s important to measure the height you need your keyboard and mouse at for neutral posture.  Sit in your chair with your feet flat on the ground and your knees and hips at 90 degrees of flexion (you may need to adjust the height of your chair).  Place your elbows at 90 degree angles, your forearms parallel to the ground, and your wrists straight.  Have someone measure from just below your hands to the floor for your keyboard sit height.  Do the same for standing.  Then make sure that the desk will lower to the sit height and rise to the stand height.  This is important because height adjustable desks sometimes don’t lower enough.

There is another option if you don’t want to or can’t replace your desk.  They are sit-stand conversion stations that attach to your desk, and raise the monitor and keyboard simultaneously when you switch from sitting to standing and back.  One good example is the Ergotron Work-Fit S.  Once again, make sure to measure your keyboard sit height and stand height because not all conversion stations lower the keyboard enough.

Working at a height adjustable desk can do wonders for your posture, your body, and your productivity.  With the amount that society sits at a desk all day, it’s something we cannot afford to go without.


The best ergonomics tip – relax at work

Man Relaxing At Office Desk In a Green Field

Over the years of assessing people at work, I have noticed one important factor that rings true every time: people who are relaxed while working rarely get injured. These are the people who sit at their computers in a laid-back posture looking very untroubled. Their shoulders are low and slack, not hunched up; their back is against the backrest; their head and neck are loose, not peering forward into the computer; and their legs are stretched out in a relaxed posture. These people sometimes start to have aches and pains, but they make the necessary adjustments to stop them. Maybe they change the height of their monitor, maybe they alternate hands when mousing, maybe they use more keyboard shortcuts, maybe they try a different chair, etc. They usually keep trying a lot of different things and mix their working postures up too. They may slouch, stand, or use a laptop for half an hour in an arm chair or bean bag. They also take lots of breaks – they get water, coffee, and snacks; they chat with other people; and they go for walks outside.

And just in case it sounds like these people weren’t getting their work done, the opposite was actually true. They worked just as hard, if not harder, when they were chilling out. Maybe they had more energy to work from keeping their body loose, or maybe they were more productive because their bodies weren’t being distracted by nagging aches and pains.

It turns out my theory has been researched and proven as well. An article titled “Work technique and its consequences for musculoskeletal disorders” found that workers who had a forward neck flexion and raised arms ended up with more neck and shoulder problems. Those who had a dynamic pattern of movements were less likely to be injured.

So some of my best ergonomics advice … relax at work. Here are some things to try:

  • Keep your whole body loose. To see what relaxed feels like, tense up your muscles, take a deep breath and let them loose. Do this frequently throughout the day.
  • Pretend you’re on the couch watching TV or a movie. That’s exact feeling of relaxation you want when working.
  • Change your posture often. Try different things. Don’t be afraid to slouch or twist, just as long as you keep moving and don’t spend too much time in one posture or the other.
  • Take breaks.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Do range of motion exercises. Rotate your arms around your shoulder sockets. Alternate raising your knees to your hips when standing. Flex and extend your wrists.
  • Micropause. While waiting for your computer to load, relax your arms.
  • Deep breathe constantly. Even one deep breath gives you a feeling of instant relaxation.

Please leave a comment if you have any other tips on how to relax!

Ergonomics in Wellness Programs

Company wellness programs are a great way for companies to help their employees get and stay healthy.  Some common themes in wellness programs include helping employees lose weight, eat healthier, stop smoking, and engage in regular exercise.  These goals affect the “internal environment” of the employee and can aid in reducing illness and disease, as well as help the employee feel good and be more productive.  But what about the “external environment” of the employee?  Has this been adequately addressed in company wellness programs?

The Center for the Promotion of Health in the New England Workplace (CPH-NEW) is investigating that question and feels that a more total health effort will result in greater success of wellness programs.  Dr. Laura Punnett, PhD, University of Massachusetts Lowell is part of the team that is investigating merging occupational health measures with wellness programs.  Dr. Punnett writes a very convincing scientific rationale for including ergonomics in wellness programs:

More research needs to be done, but there is evidence that changing work organization (e.g. work schedules, how a task is done) through ergonomics principles can increase an employee’s feeling of contributing to the work process (known as decision latitude).  Improving decision latitude has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, mental health problems, and possibly play a role in reducing musculoskeletal injuries.  Most importantly in this article, Dr. Punnett states that wellness programs primarily address individual issues, but often do not uncover the root cause of the problem.

With this, I wholeheartedly agree.  To achieve total employee wellness, both internal and external environments need to be addressed.  Also based on preliminary evidence, internal and external environments may be linked more closely than once thought and may prove to be complementary.  For example, an employee may be having trouble quitting smoking.  He cites stress at work which has arisen since new changes have been made in his job as an assembly line worker.  These changes include decreasing the time it should take him to complete his task and use of a new tool that is causing hand pain.  If these issues are not addressed, stress will continue and smoking will too.  Using the ergonomics principles of changing task rate and improving the ergonomics of tools will help to mitigate stress and affect smoking cessation positively.

So if you are participating in a wellness program, make sure that all your needs are met.  That your goals to eat healthier are complemented by an ergonomics evaluation, and that your increase in exercise is combined with changing the way you work through posture improvements and more effective rest breaks.  With a total health approach, we can achieve a happier lifestyle with less stress and a greater experience in our working lives.

Ergonomics improves product quality

Many people believe, and rightly so, that ergonomics helps people feel comfortable and reduces injuries at work.  But can ergonomics help in other ways?  Or more specifically can ergonomics improve product quality?

It seems as though it can.  I recently read a research article titled “The Influence of Production Ergonomics on Product Quality” by J. Almgren and C. Schaurig.  At a Volvo Production plant in Sweden, a study was undertaken to see how many errors occurred in tasks with good ergonomics vs. tasks with poor ergonomics.  It was found that twice as many errors occurred in the tasks with the poor ergonomics than with the good ergonomics.  As a result, extra time was needed to be taken to fix the errors and this affected the quality of the product.

In another article, “Ergonomics and quality in paced assembly lines” by L. Lin, C.G. Drury, S.-W. Kim, a study was undertaken on a manual assembly line in a camera plant.  The number of defects was measured at each workstation and it was found that there was over a 50% of difference in quality between the two lines.  The reason for this difference in quality was because of two ergonomic variables:  increased time taken to complete the task and poor posture.

And in a third article “Relationships between ergonomics and quality in assembly work” by Jörgen A.E. Eklund, quality deficiencies were three times as common for poor ergonomics tasks compared to other tasks.  The ergonomic variables were identified as discomfort from injury, organizational issues, and time pressure.  Another interesting finding in this study was a high link between job satisfaction and product quality – to be happy in their jobs, workers ranked producing good quality products as very important.  So not only is product quality good for the bottom line, it results in happier, more productive employees.

This is a great example of another way that ergonomics is beneficial.  Not only does it reduce injuries and increase comfort, but it improves product quality and results in happier employees.  And in the end, that’s just what every company and employee needs.

Treadmills at the office – good or bad?

Lately I’ve been seeing many articles about people who have stopped using their office desk when working at the computer.  But instead of a standing workstation, these people have gone one step – or many steps further – by using a treadmill while working.  Ergonomically speaking, is this good?  Let’s look at a few pros and cons:


  1. Sitting more than four hours a day can decrease life expectancy by 48% (Screen-Based Entertainment Time, All-Cause Mortality, and Cardiovascular Events; Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, MSc, BSc, Mark Hamer, PhD, MSc, BSc, andDavid W. Dunstan, PhD, BAppSc, Journal of the American College of Cardiology;
  2. Activity is better than rest for acute low back pain (Evaluation and Treatment of Acute Low Back Pain; SCOTT KINKADE, M.D., M.S.P.H., University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, Dallas, Texas;
  3. Sustained activity during the day burns more calories (The energy expenditure of using a “walk-and-work” desk for office workers with obesity; James A Levine, Jennifer M Miller, Endocrine Research Unit, Mayo Clinic and Mayo Foundation, Rochester, Minnesota, USA;



  1. Computer task performance is lower when walking and slightly lower when cycling, compared with chair sitting (The Effects of Walking and Cycling Computer Workstations on Keyboard and Mouse Performance; Leon Straker, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia; James Levine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota; Amity Campbell, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia;
  2. Compared with sitting, treadmill walking caused a 6% to 11% decrease in measures of fine motor skills and math problem solving, but did not affect selective attention and processing speed or reading comprehension (Effect of using a treadmill workstation on performance of simulated office work tasks: John D, Bassett D, Thompson D, Fairbrother D, Baldwin D; Dept of Exercise, Sport, and Leisure Studies, University of Tennessee, Knoxille, USA;
  3. Productivity may lower.  In a study with transcriptionists, it was found the speed of transcription lowered by 16% while walking on a treadmill (Productivity of transcriptionists using a treadmill desk; Warren G. Thompson, James A. Levine; Department of Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, USA;


Personally I am reluctant to recommend a treadmill desk.  This is primarily because of balance and safety reasons, but also due to the possibility that cognition and productivity are affected.  But the research is conflicting and more studies need to be done, especially with regards to complex tasks and problem solving.  I certainly can’t ignore the fact that more physical activity during the day improves health.  For this reason alone, it is important to keep evaluating the treadmill desk as a viable option for the future.

Nature and Ergonomics

As I wrote in an earlier post (Cognitive Ergonomics; June 2010), cognitive ergonomics is a branch of ergonomics that deals with how the brain interacts with a task and how this can be optimized.  In a working sense, the purpose of cognitive ergonomics is to allow your brain understand things more clearly and quickly.  One way to help your brain understand things is to redesign equipment and/or tasks.  An example of this would be to redesign a user manual so information can be found easily and rewriting the manual so that explanations are clearer.  But what about other outside factors that affect mental cognition?  Are there other more organic things that can help your brain be more efficient and creative?  This came to mind recently while reading this article: “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature”; Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan; Department of Psychology, Department of Industrial and Operations Engineering, and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Michigan  The authors were interested in exploring links in cognition to natural environments vs. urban environments as related to the Attention Restoration Theory (ART).  The ART is a belief that being in nature will improve concentration by allowing involuntary attention to take over while giving voluntary attention a time to replenish (involuntary attention is when you concentrate on things in your environment that are stimulating, while voluntary attention is when you tell your mind to concentrate on something).  The authors predicted that once you give your voluntary attention a break, you will be better able to concentrate when you get back to the task at hand.  This prophecy was validated as they found that the subjects who walked in nature were able to perform a directed-attention task better that the subjects who walked in a downtown urban environment.  In a second task, even just looking at pictures of nature improved performance in the task.

The best thing about the results of this study is that it is so easy to implement nature into our daily lives to improve our concentration and creativity.  If you work near a park or nature reserve, walks during the work day will help your attention and focus improve.  If you don’t work near nature, looking at pictures of nature allows you the same break in order to recharge your concentration.  So sit back, enjoy the view, and work better.

Organizational Ergonomics – Part 3

Redesigning the physical environment using the science of ergonomics will help in reducing repetitive strain injuries (RSI’s) for workers.  But there are other things to consider when implementing new equipment and design that could be detrimental to a happy, productive work environment.

Consider company restructuring:  Tom has been working as graphic designer for ABC Design for many years.  He enjoys his job and feels he gets a lot of creative support from his design team of six people.  He also relies on his supervisor frequently for feedback and for future direction on his projects.  Recently however, ABC Design restructured their company management and teams to reduce costs and promote efficiency.  Tom now only has a team of three people and his supervisor oversees five other teams.  His supervisor no longer has the time he needs for feedback and direction and as a result, his creativity has suffered and he cannot complete his projects in a timely manner.  His team members are experiencing the same problems.  What went wrong?

Solution:  Company restructuring is important to a company’s bottom line, but it should also aim to promote a good working environment or productivity, efficiency, and innovation will suffer.  ABC brought in an ergonomics consultant who specialized in organizational ergonomics.  She identified a decrease in productivity due to stagnated project completion, weakened innovation, and a decrease in future contracts.  It was recommended that design teams consist of at least four people and that supervisors oversee no more than four teams.  Due to this organizational ergonomics restructuring, productivity increased, creativity rose, and business increased.  The right mix of cost-saving and managerial and team support was found.