Most jobs today require workers to sit in awkward or cramped positions for extended periods of time. The human body was not designed to work under these conditions and injuries caused by repetitive actions that strain and compress nerves, joints and the spine are common among office workers.
It may be your sitting posture, the position of your wrists on the desk, even the distance and angle of your eyes to the computer screen – all can contribute to workplace injury.
Incorrect sitting posture and poor workspace ergonomics are major causes of neck and back pain, which in turn are common reasons for lost time at work. According to the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, approximately 1.8 million US workers suffer from these or similar symptoms. One-third of these symptoms are serious enough to require time away from work.
Good ergonomics can make the difference between a comfortable, productive worker and one who requires a long and painful downtime.
“Ergonomics involves the techniques and equipment needed to help people adapt to their work environment safely,” said William Liao, physical therapist at Beijing United Family Hospital and Clinics (BJU).
While office equipment manufacturers have flooded the market with ergonomic products including seats, mouse pads and keyboards, the best antidote to this ailment doesn’t come in a box.
"This equipment can help people adapt their environment, but I don’t think it’s necessary," Liao said. "For me, ergonomics is about education and prevention. I teach patients how to use their computer and how to adjust the things around them."
Liao’s first point of attention in creating a healthy working environment is a person’s sitting posture: The feet should be flat on the floor in a comfortable position, making sure the thigh doesn’t compress nerves in the leg.
The placement of the computer monitor in relation to the eyes is also critical to maintaining good posture. The monitor should be about 70 centimeters from the eyes and positioned so that the user must tilt his or her head slightly downward, rather than looking at the screen straight on. Liao recommends that workers put all items of essential desk equipment no more than about 5cm from one another. This removes much of the strain on the elbows, hands and wrists. It also reduces the number of repetitive actions performed, which, in turn, helps prevent repetitive stress injuries.
A proper chair adjusted to the correct height will also contribute to improved office ergonomics. "Some people sit for too long and have tingling in their thighs because they’re probably not sitting at the right height," Liao said. "Sitting properly helps to make the lumbar in the spine as long as possible and decreases the load on the feet."
Most people today have seats with adjustable armrests. Nonetheless, office workers often flex their wrists at angles that lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. In an optimal working environment, all desk equipment should be located so that the joints are all in a neutral position.
Poor ergonomics can lead to eyestrain, neck and back pain, shoulder problems, tennis elbow and carpal tunnel syndrome. But the good news is that most of these symptoms will disappear once a worker adopts good sitting and working habits.
Some severe injuries may persist, and these can be treated with traditional physical therapy protocols. Nonetheless, Liao said that prevention through education is a far better treatment. He believes regular exercise in the office is an important preventative measure. "We have to teach people exercise, regular exercise – like every 2-3 hours you stand up, move everything. Move your neck, move your arms, move your knees, move your hands. This is treatment by prevention."
If workers develop good habits now, they won’t have to pay the price further down the line. "If we damage ourselves when we are young, we will have healthy environment: Don’t abuse your body in the workplace to pay for it when we are old," said Liao.