A headrest on an office chair looks chic and elegant on the one hand and can also provide good ergonomics due to the ergonomic design. But to what extent is this effectively so? I am often asked the following questions: “What does a headrest do for me?” or “Can a headrest solve pain in the neck or problems with the cervical spine?”
The answers to these need a more detailed look at the computer workplace and what the office desk posture should look like in general. The influence of a headrest depends on various circumstances.
Factors that influence ergonomic sitting with or without a headrest
In order for an ergonomic headrest to really do a good job, the following main factors should be provided, all of which have a significant influence on the shoulder, neck and head area:
- SEAT CUSHION and its composition
- SEAT MECHANICS and the adjustment of seat inclination
- BACK CUSHION and its support function
- OFFICE TABLE and its correct height
- SCREEN(S) and its positioning, height and viewing angle
- ERGONOMIC SUPPORTS, laptop stand, document holder and wrist rests
- LIGHT and good illumination at the workplace
SEAT CUSHION and its composition
The intervertebral discs (discus intervertebralis) are located between the individual vertebrae in the spine and have as their main task to guarantee the mobility of the back, neck and head. They also act as a kind of shock absorber, cushioning the weight and blows of the body. An important component of each intervertebral disc for this purpose is the inner gelatinous core, which consists of about 80-85% fluid. This core helps the intervertebral disc to remain supple and to absorb pressure and shocks.
If a person sits on a chair, the intervertebral discs should be helped to support the spine with a seat cushion so that they do not have to absorb all the pressure directly. The pressure on the intervertebral discs can be felt not only in the lower back, but also in the cervical spine. Therefore, an additional aid for ergonomic sitting can be created with a soft, resilient support on the seat, which can also help the shoulder and neck area.
The seat cushion should ideally be a few finger widths thick so that the hard surface under the cushion is not felt. Better suited here is molded foam, which usually has an ergonomic design and an anatomical shape, is slightly thicker than conventional cut foam and often has a curve at the front edge to ensure blood circulation. With a seat cushion with such good ergonomics, an upright sitting position is possible, even over a longer period of time and promotes an ergonomic office desk posture.
With cheap cut foam, which is mainly found in inexpensive office chairs, the required support is insufficient, because the foam is not thick enough and the compression hardness of the foam is too soft, and quickly diminishes. This has a similar effect as when a tire on a car remains only half inflated and thus does not have the required load-bearing effect.
SEAT MECHANICS and the adjustment of seat inclination
Since it is important to remain in a relaxed and upright posture when working at a computer screen, the seat’s tilt angle should be adjustable.
Every person has his or her own physiology and it is important that the seat tilt, i.e. the tilting of the seat cushion forwards or backwards, is possible when working in a seated position and especially at the computer. This means that the intervertebral discs in the lumbar region, for example, can be pleasantly relieved by tilting the seat forward. Ideally, the seat angle should be continuously adjustable so that the most comfortable sitting position can be found. It also makes sense to occasionally change the seat tilt angle slightly or not to fix it at all, so that the blood circulation in the legs and buttocks is not blocked, but rather a good blood flow is always ensured through different positions.
Ergonomic sitting effects the neck and head area. The cervical vertebrae are already influenced by the posture when sitting and should therefore be given the best possible relief. So make sure that the seat angle of your chair is adjusted so that not only your lumbar region but also your cervical spine remains relaxed. Listen to your body, which will quickly tell you whether you are experiencing more or less pain in a particular position.
BACK CUSHION and its support function
When working in a seated position for extended periods of time, it is absolutely important to avoid falling into the unhealthy, hunched-back position, which can have additional side-effects on the neck and head. The following cause a hunched back posture:
- A) if the backrest has no supporting function
- B) if the backrest cushion does not have good ergonomics
- C) if the backrest generates insufficient counterforce while leaning back
- D) if the upholstery no longer supports the back correctly
- A) A backrest should provide sufficient support especially for the lower back, also called the lumbar region, so that the spine remains in its natural S-shape. Most disc herniations occur between the lumbar vertebrae L4/L5 or the last lumbar vertebra and the first sacral vertebra L5/S1, that is, in the lower back region. Therefore, it is vital to have adequate support from the back cushion in the region of the pelvic girdle. Check to see if your lower back comes forward more than your upper back. If it does not, you should remedy this lack of support with a small pillow or a rolled up towel.
- B) The ergonomic design of a backrest is visible to the naked eye. The cushion should have an anatomical shape and, in principle, have a similar shape and curvature as a healthy back. The shape should resemble an S, just like a spine.
- C) To achieve the healthiest possible posture when sitting, it is advisable not to fix the backrest, but to leave it flexible. This keeps the spine in motion and the intervertebral discs are supplied with additional fluid through this pumping effect. In many chairs, however, the backrest generates too little counter-pressure when not locked, i.e. the force with which the back should be held is too low and the user gets the impression of falling backwards. Ergonomic sitting is thus not guaranteed.
- D) Another problem with a movable back can be the support of the back cushion. Especially with cheap office chairs, the attachment point of the backrest is at the very back of the seat. This causes the support function in the lower back to be non-existent when moving backwards. So it’s like someone taking away the support of the lower back when leaning backward. In office chairs with good ergonomics, the attachment point of the backrest is moved further towards the front of the seat. This ensures good support in all angular positions.
OFFICE TABLE and its correct height
To get the optimum office desk height, first adjust the height of your office chair so that when you are in a seated position, your thighs are horizontal or rise slightly in height from your knees to your hips. Find your most comfortable position in this area. and you will generate a good ergonomic sitting posture for yourself.
You should now adjust the table height accordingly. In a seated position, let your upper arms hang down in a relaxed manner while making a 90° angle with your forearms .In this position, the forearms should now rest exactly horizontally on the table surface. If this is not the case, you need to adjust the height of your office desk accordingly. Now, you have taken another step towards an ergonomic office desk posture.
Alternatively, the same applies to a standing desk. In a standing position, the forearms should rest at a 90° angle with the upper arm and be parallel to the desk surface.
SCREEN(S) and its positioning, height and viewing angle
A major problem for headaches, neck and shoulder problems is the positioning of the screen on the office desk.
Please make sure that the following criteria are met correctly on your monitor:
- A) Screen height
- B) Vertical center axis of the screen
- C) Screen distance
- D) Angle adjustment from the screen
- A) One mistake made often is that the screen is set too high. The viewing angle to the screen should always be slightly lower. When screens are set too high, the viewing angle goes up, which inevitably causes tension in the neck and can bring on various ailments. You have the optimum height setting when the top of the screen is one to two finger thicknesses lower than the center of the eye. So you should be able to see just above the top edge of the screen.
- B) The screen should be centered exactly in front of you so you don’t have to turn or tilt in any way. If you are working with two screens, either the main screen should be in front of you as much as possible, or if both are needed at the same time, the midpoint of the entire length of the monitors should be directly in front of you.
- C) To ensure that your head does not tilt forward, but remains in a natural and upright position, the monitor should not be too far away. The ideal distance to your monitor is when you can lightly touch the screen with your fingertips while your arm is extended. In this position, your sitting posture should be relaxed and everything should be easily readable on the monitor. If this is not the case, you can change the font size or have an eye test done.
- D) Ideally, the viewing angle from the viewer to the screen surface should form a 90° angle. Most monitors can be tilted slightly so that the upper edge is slightly further away from the viewer than the bottom edge thereby achieving the optimal 90° angle.
ERGONOMIC SUPPORTS, laptop stand, document holder and wrist rests
I wouldn’t want to be without certain ergonomic aids in my workplace, because they generally contribute a lot to good ergonomics in the office.
Important ergonomic aids are:
- A) Laptop or notebook stand
- B) Document holder
- C) Wrist rests for mouse/keyboard
- A) For a correct viewing angle to the screen of the laptop or notebook, the laptop should not be placed directly on the desk. Doing so can cause neck pain because the screen is too low and the head must be tilted down too much. Many people make this mistake and work for hours with the laptop directly on the desk. This should be avoided whenever possible. A simple laptop or notebook stand helps here. You also need an external keyboard and mouse. This combination prevents tension and pain and enables more relaxed work as well as good ergonomics.
- B) A document holder is recommended especially for people who have to read and edit a lot of documents. The document holder is placed between the screen and the keyboard.
- C) If you work with a normal mouse, i.e. not a vertical, stand-up or trackball mouse, then an ergonomic wrist rest is practically a must. The classic computer mouse can cause tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome with prolonged use. This is because the wrist is bent unnaturally when working with the mouse. A wrist rest is the ideal solution for this because the heel of the hand and wrist are elevated and come into a horizontal position with the forearm. The same applies to the keyboard when typing. Here, too, without a wrist rest the wrists are usually bent too much. Today, there are rests and pads for little money and made of a wide variety of materials. For those who prefer natural and environmentally friendly products, there are wrist rests filled with organic millet husk. Millet husk adapts perfectly to the wrist and has a soothing effect.
LIGHT and a good illumination at the workplace
To have a good office desk posture, proper illumination of the workplace is also necessary. With bad lighting a person is inclined to put himself in an unnatural position, e.g. by slouching because of poorly readable documents, which are not illuminated sufficiently or lie in shadow. Ergonomic lighting should not create shadows and the light should come from the side, preferably both directly and indirectly. The desk should always be positioned at the side of the window to avoid glare or unwanted reflections on the screen. An additional desk lamp can provide more light at specific points. The combination of daylight and artificial light is ideal.
What adjustment options should an ergonomic chair with headrest have?
If the main factors described above are present, a headrest can be quite useful. However, in order to foster good ergonomics when working at the desk, the following factors should be present. Otherwise, a headrest on an office chair is just decoration and has at most a design effect, but no ergonomic support.
Ergonomic requirements for a headrest on an office chair are:
- height adjustment
- depth or angle adjustment
- sufficient upholstery
- 1. in order for a headrest to effectively assume the function of a support, it must be possible to adjust the height so that not only the neck, but the entire head is supported. This can be a challenge for tall people, but the range of adjustment of the headrest should also accommodate these people. If, for example, a short break is taken and one wants to lean back a bit in a relaxed manner, a headrest should provide secure support.
- 2. a major shortcoming of many headrests is the depth adjustment, to come forward horizontally, or the ability to adjust the angle so that either the neck and also the head is supported. The head must feel contact with the headrest in an upright and relaxed position. This can effectively support the neck or head and prevent tension. The head should remain in an upright position and not be tilted backward.
- 3. if you use a headrest for more than a few minutes, a minimum cushion thickness is a prerequisite to avoid pressure points on the head. Check that the headrest not only has an ergonomic design, but also has comfortable upholstery, similar to the headrest in a car.
An ergonomic chair with headrest is certainly not the most important ergonomic option in an office chair. Instead, the seat depth adjustment, seat tilt or the individual curvature in the lumbar region is of primary importance.
Nevertheless, from an ergonomic point of view, a headrest can make absolute sense if it can be adjusted to effectively relieve the neck and the tense muscles in this region.
Personally, I use an office chair with a headrest and appreciate it very much. For instance, in longer typing sessions, I get into a relaxed sitting position and can relieve the muscles of the head and neck. During a short lunch break in the office or during a power nap, I can let my head rest comfortably in a reclined position on the support and thus recharge my performance and concentration power in a few minutes.
To be more efficient and have fewer neck problems while working at the desk, does not depend solely on a headrest, but much more on all the other factors I described above that positively influence ergonomic sitting. Nevertheless, an ergonomic headrest is absolutely recommended. In general, it can improve ergonomics at the workplace. For example, for people who have had a herniated disc in the cervical spine, a headrest can allow them to work not only with less pain, but also more efficiently.
If the topic of ergonomics in the office or home office appeals to you and you are interested in it further, my book “Wellness in the Office” can provide you with even more tips and tricks. Combined with humorous drawings, I pass on 50+1 tips to make your office a little paradise.