An ergonomic office setup isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity for your health and productivity.
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Ergonomic work station: Workplace of an Architect
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Whether you log into work remotely or head into the office, it's important to consider how your physical workspace impacts your health. After all, propping up on the couch with a laptop doesn't exactly benefit your posture or improve aches and pains. One standard solution is to create an ergonomic workspace—but what exactly does that mean, and how do you go about doing it? We asked physical therapists to explain the basic principles of ergonomics, and how to give your body the support it needs while you work. 

What does 'ergonomic' mean?

Ergonomics was developed around 1950, in part because of the recognition that people are more prone to making mistakes than machines when they aren't in proper working conditions, explains Lara Heimann, physical therapist and creator of the LYT Yoga Method. To improve efficiency and minimize error, the physical work environment had to be taken into greater consideration. Today, ergonomics aims to increase efficiency and decrease the likelihood of work-related injuries. The goal of ergonomics is to increase the comfort of using technology, improve worker satisfaction, safety, and quality of work-life experience, and to decrease fatigue and stress on individual workers.

According to Occupational Safety and Health studies, 34 percent of all lost workdays are due to work-related musculoskeletal disorders. "Besides joint stiffness and muscular soreness, common complaints from workers include muscle fatigue, blurry vision, and numbness or tingling in different areas of the body that are susceptible to a suboptimal workspace," Heimann says. "The main principles of ergonomics are to improve the work environment by creating the most optimal biomechanical setup that benefits the worker's physical body, mental acuity, work satisfaction, and overall productivity."

Keep in mind that what constitutes 'ergonomic' for you might not be the exact same approach your colleague will need to be comfortable. If you're someone who sits in front of a computer typing all day, you'll probably want to focus on the positioning of your shoulders, back, and hands. If you're a salesperson who makes dozens of calls each day, you'll also want to think about your neck: Are you holding the phone to your ear with your shoulder hiked up or with your hand? 

That's why Heimann says it's important to remember the best ergonomic work environment will be designed to place less stress on the body and allow for the most optimal posture. Usually, this is achieved through improved positioning of a desk, chair, standing desk, and computer setup, since poor sitting posture can create strain and wreak havoc on the spine, hips, shoulders. 

"Setting up a workstation that encourages a neutral spine alignment is key for successful ergonomics," she explains. "Neutral spine is when the natural curves of the spine are balanced so that the bones stack on top of each other with the greatest surface area, creating stability and optimal energy exchange."

What are the benefits of an ergonomic workspace?

There are plenty of reasons to invest in an ergonomic workspace, but the biggest benefit is a reduction in pain, according to Lauren Lobert Frison, DPT, OMPT, CSCS, the owner of APEX Physical Therapy. Usually, it's neck and back pain, but it could also be wrist and shoulder discomfort too. It's a win-win for employers, since it saves money by decreasing workers' compensation claims and days off. And for employees, it improves the quality of life, job satisfaction, and job performance, she adds.

Another benefit is the prevention of injury. For example, using the appropriate keyboard and mouse can reduce carpal tunnel. And an ergonomic setup that allows for proper lifting techniques can prevent back injuries. "These injuries, usually from repetitive movements or overuse, can be very costly for employers and have a lifelong effect on the employees who suffer from them," Frison says. 

Last but not least, you'll likely feel a renewed sense of happiness in your job when it doesn't cause you pain to log in to work each day. "You may increase your productivity at work due to being in less pain and being more comfortable," Frison says. "Having your area set up ergonomically will also help to make you more efficient at completing your job tasks. Even if part of your ergonomic plan includes hourly breaks to walk or stretch, you'll be able to complete more work overall because you're in a comfortable and effective position to perform your job."

How to Set Up an Ergonomic Workstation

Ready to invest in your health and work performance? Creating an ergonomic workspace isn't difficult, but it may take a little time to figure out what feels best to you and your body. 

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1 Pick a chair that offers the right support.

Begin where you likely spend the most time—your chair. Heimann says to look for a chair that supports the lumbar (lower) spine, allows you to maintain a neutral spine (not curled forward or arched back), and keeps your head and neck aligned over your torso. She adds that your seat height should allow your feet to be flat on the floor and your knees to be level with hips, providing support for legs and spine. Your body should create a series of natural ninety-degree angles.

"An ergonomically designed chair is specifically made to keep our body in a comfortable position with minimal strain and to maintain good posture, but one can adjust an existing chair by getting a lumbar pillow and adjusting the height by either bringing the floor up to the feet with a crate or books, or bringing the hips higher by sitting on a firm cushion," she adds.

2 Choose a desk that allows for adequate legroom.

The next step is to choose a desk that allows for adequate legroom and sufficient desktop space. Heimann suggests finding an adjustable desk, since it allows you to change positions between sitting and standing. No standing desk? Stack books or a box on top of your desk for a makeshift setup. 

3 Ensure the proper monitor or laptop height.

An ideal ergonomic desk setup is one that accommodates proper neck and wrist positioning, which you can achieve with the right computer screen and keyboard height. "Having the computer screen at eye level, or slightly lower, is incumbent for avoiding the dreaded tech neck," Heimann says. Your wrists and forearms should be straight and about level with your elbows. "A wireless mouse/keyboard offers flexibility for positioning the wrist, which is important if the screen is higher, at eye level. An ergonomic keyboard tilts away at a slight angle to maintain a more neutral position for the wrists."

4 Take regular breaks throughout the day.

This one doesn't cost a penny, but can make a significant difference. It doesn't matter if you're standing or sitting with impeccable posture, being in the same position for hours on end will inevitably cause stiffness and pain, Frison warns. "Set an alarm and take a little walk once an hour; change positions with your convertible desk every hour or two; take a stretch break—these are the best things you can do to help decrease or prevent pain," she says.

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