The human body is so ingeniously built that we can do the most incredible things with it, like climb up a steep mountain wall, swim in oceans, play soccer and much more. Seemingly mundane activities like taking a walk, riding a bike, or simply baking a cake are possible because of our body’s diverse motor skills.
Depending on the activity, we need to train our body accordingly and regularly. But if we hardly move or no longer move at all, our musculoskeletal system literally rusts and will inevitably cause all kinds of suffering. Movement is an essential part of our body and is just as important as eating and drinking to maintain our health and well-being.
Our modern behaviors, which often involve sedentary and repetitive activities, whether while working in the office, at home, or simply in front of a screen or smartphone, create a wide variety of ergonomic risk factors. In this article I show which are the most common ones and how they can be avoided.
Table of Contents
Most common problem regions in our musculoskeletal system
In order to be able to narrow down the ergonomic risk factors, I have listed the most common problem regions of the human body in connection with office work. These are the areas in our musculoskeletal system that are most plagued by tension and pain. These ailments are mainly caused by incorrect or fixed posture. These four body regions are:
- Head, neck and shoulders
- Back and lumbar region
- Wrists and fingers
- Hip and knee
Head, neck and shoulders
The head is our “control center” and when pain occurs here, the entire body can be affected. Most often it is a headache, which sometimes even ends in a migraine. But dry and tired eyes are also a known evil. Furthermore, respiratory diseases such as constant cough or bronchitis are also known office ailments.
The neck is the transition piece to the head and connects to the shoulders. Suffering in these areas is therefore often reported.
Headaches and tired eyes, as well as a sore neck and tense shoulders are in very many cases caused by an incorrect monitor height.
An ergonomic monitor height is of central importance to avoid such suffering. The correct height of the monitor is ensured when you can look at the center of the screen with your head slightly tilted, or when you can easily see over the top edge of the screen when looking straight ahead. The easiest way to set an ergonomic monitor height is to position the top edge of the monitor about a finger’s width below the center of your eyes. When doing this, you should adopt exactly the same sitting position as when you are working. Do not sit differently or change the position of your head when checking the monitor height.
The distance from your eyes to the screen is correct when you can lightly touch the monitor with your fingertips with extended arms. Please also make sure that the screen is centered in front of you on the surface. In other words, positioned not too much to the left or too much to the right, as this will cause you to adopt a twisted posture, another ergonomic risk factor.
Many people today work with two screens or with one monitor and the laptop next to it. Again, the dual screen ergonomics have a significant impact on your well-being. When working with two monitors, they should be positioned according to the same rule of height and distance as explained above. In order to achieve optimal dual screen ergonomics, they should be placed seamlessly next to each other. You should be able to look at both the left and the right monitor comfortably without having to twist your spine.
If you are using a laptop as a second monitor, you will need to use a laptop stand to achieve the correct ergonomic monitor height.
The main mistake in connection with monitors is definitely their height. More often than not, monitors are placed too high and laptops too low. This almost always causes suffering in the neck and shoulder area, which in turn can cause headaches. Therefore, make absolutely sure that your monitor is not too high and that you always have a slightly downward viewing angle. The same applies to optimal dual screen ergonomics. With the laptop, the only thing you have to make sure of is that it is not placed too low. Placed directly on the worksurface, the screen of a laptop is too low causing the neck to be tilted downward. A laptop stand is absolutely recommended here, as well as an external keyboard and mouse.
Headaches, dry and tired eyes but also respiratory diseases as well as coughing and bronchitis are also often the result of a bad indoor climate. It is usually too warm and too dry in offices, and after a few hours of work there is a lack of sufficient oxygen and clean air in the room. The absolute killer here is, of course, if someone also smokes in the room, which has been prohibited in public buildings for some time, but unfortunately still happens in some cases in the home office. This must be absolutely avoided inside buildings for health reasons.
The room temperature should be between 18-24° (64-75 Fahrenheit), with 21° (70 Fahrenheit) being considered ideal by most people.
Humidity would be best between 40-60%, although this may be as high as 70% if air conditioning is used.
To avoid getting too much carbon dioxide (CO2), which can lead to fatigue, headaches and poor concentration, regular ventilation should ensure a ready supply of fresh air. Plants also serve as ideal sources of oxygen, while also creating a pleasant and relaxing atmosphere.
To avoid fatigue in general, a short nap of 10 to 15 minutes or regular breaks are recommended. A brief walk of 15 to 30 minutes can often be done during the lunch break. The fresh air and the additional oxygen intake through movement regenerate the brain and activate the blood circulation, both of which have positive consequences, and also prevent cardiovascular diseases.
Optimal lighting is another important factor for good ergonomics at the workplace. Artificial light and daylight help to protect the eyes and thus possibly prevent headaches. However, you should never have the light falling directly in front of you, but always from the side or from above, so that no glare or shadowing can occur.
In order to additionally counteract the risk factor of dry eyes, you can deliberately squeeze your eyelids shut and also look into the distance from time to time, so that the eye focus changes.
Back and lumbar area
Another enormous ergonomic risk factor is the posture when sitting. Regardless of the office chair, the first thing that matters is the seat height. You have reached the proper chair height when your thighs are at least horizontal or slightly higher than your knees in a seated position. However, you must always keep your entire foot in contact with the floor. If this is not the case, you will need to purchase a footrest to relieve the strain on your legs.
The proper chair height also has a corresponding effect on the proper desk height, which is usually between 66 and 75 cm (26 and 30 inches), usually with a fixed height of 72 cm (28 inches). Provided you can adjust the desk height, a proper desk height would be achieved when you are seated with your shoulders relaxed and can place your forearms on the desk, forming a 90° angle with your upper arms. Ideal are electrically height-adjustable office desks or even those that can be adjusted in height with a gas spring. Alternating between sitting and standing is an ideal solution from an ergonomic point of view. I change my position from sitting to standing several times a day. This is not only pleasant but also I experience increased work productivity as a result. I often make phone calls standing up and do administrative work sitting down. My body has become so accustomed to alternating between sitting and standing that when I’m working at someone else’s desk, I want to adjust the height, but then realize that this is not possible here. So I look forward inwardly to being at my own workplace again.
But back to the office chair. I sincerely hope that everyone who works with a kitchen chair will soon make a change, because the large ergonomic risk factor of non-ergonomic chairs, which unfortunately almost all kitchen chairs belong to, primarily damages the spine or rather the intervertebral discs.
Sitting incorrectly is promoted by non-ergonomic chairs and must be absolutely avoided.
How do you sit ergonomically correct?
After you have set the proper chair height as described above and are also using the proper desk height, you should once again make sure that you are really sitting all the way back on your office chair. Many people sit on the front edge of the chair and quickly fall into a hunchback.
Now that you are sitting all the way back in your office chair, it is critical that you have good support in your lower back, the lumbar area. Unfortunately, most chairs have a weak point here. Help yourself by placing a rolled-up towel or a small pillow positioned in the lumbar area of your back and the back of the chair. For small people, this can be an additional help to reduce the seat area and thus not get circulation problems in the back of the knees.
From an ergonomic point of view, it would now be important not to fix the backrest, but to leave it in a flexible mode. This is called dynamic sitting. However, this only makes sense if you really feel a good counterpressure from the backrest. That is, for light people, the counterpressure should be set so that they are not constantly pushed forward by the backrest but are free to move and still have support. For heavier people it is the other way around, they should not fall backwards but feel enough counter pressure from the backrest. This non-fixed backrest helps the spine to stay in motion, providing nutrient-filled fluid to the discs, which otherwise happens mainly in a reclining position during the night.
Some chairs can additionally adjust the seat tilt. Often this is coupled to the adjustment of the backrest. This is referred to as a synchronous system. Usually, the backrest moves 2:1 in relation to the seat, so the backrest moves twice as much as the seat cushion. It would be ideal if the seat angle could be adjusted independently of the backrest. This would allow you, for example, to increase the seat angle slightly after a meal and thus relieve your digestive system. People who have certain back problems, especially with herniated discs in the L5 region, are often prescribed a wedge cushion, which can be placed on the seat cushion. If your chair can adjust the seat angle independently of the back angle, you’ll have the same effect, providing comfortable relief for your lower back discs.
It would be ideal if your office chair has height-adjustable armrests so that you can also relieve your shoulders. There should be a 90° angle at the elbow so that you can ergonomically rest your forearms on the armrests.
Wrists and fingers
Another classic ergonomic risk factor is writing with a keyboard or clicking with a mouse. In many cases, the wrist is bent upwards too much here because the forearm is resting flat on the table. This can cause carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis, both of which are painful and uncomfortable. This can be prevented with a wrist rest. These are available for little money and in a wide variety of designs and are an investment that is absolutely worthwhile and tangibly increases well-being. Most wrist supports are chemically manufactured and have some kind of gel or foam as a filling. But there are also wrist pads for the mouse and for the keyboard, which are filled with organic millet chaff and made of environmentally friendly TENCEL fabric. This is a tip for all those who are interested in sustainable products.
An ergonomic mouse or even an ergonomic keyboard can also relieve the fingers and would certainly be worthwhile for people with corresponding ailments.
Hips and knees
The ergonomic risk factor for hips and knees depends on the seat height and on the seat angle.
I have already explained how to set the proper chair height at the beginning of the previous section “Back and Lumbar Area”. So, make sure that it is set correctly.
Complaints in the hip region are partly due to the fact that the seat of some chairs is like an open eggshell, i.e., the seat is lowest in the middle and higher towards the edge. This shape squeezes the hip area into an unnatural shape and can cause pain and suffering. You can solve this with an orthopedic seat cushion or ball cushion, or with a different office chair, but it’s better to try it out first.
Pain in the knees can be the cause of sitting for a long time in one position. Alternating between sitting and standing or simply moving around a bit in between helps here. Sitting too low can also trigger pain in the knees.
If the knee pain is osteoarthritis related, exercise is the main thing that helps. The best exercise for your knees in this case is light cycling.
I have pointed out some ergonomic risk factors that occur in an office environment and have explained what can be done about them. There are additional factors that also represent an ergonomic risk but are less visible. These are, for example, a negative attitude or dissatisfaction. This casts a very negative shadow on the entire ergonomics in an office, which could be quickly solved with a positive attitude. Psychological factors should not be underestimated, and positive thinking should be encouraged as much as possible to foster good ergonomics.
A final tip to prevent many ailments from arising in the first place is to drink enough water every day. This can help prevent headaches, intervertebral disc problems and many other health problems. Drinking is an important key to good health and better ergonomics.
If you enjoy reading ergonomic tips and are interested in well-being in the office or home office, I can recommend my book “Wellness in the Office”. With the help of humorous drawings, I share 50+1 valuable tips.