Four reasons why conventional advice on how you should sit at your workstation can make you ill.
By Michael Walker, Lead Osteopath at Avenue Health.
I believe that the information given to most people regarding their workstation is ineffective and can actually lead to continual back pain, tired and aching muscles and/or headaches.
We have all seen those lovely diagrams or even had an ergonomic assessment at work showing the optimal height for your elbows, computer screens, keyboards and chair position. You have then probably tried to adopt the “correct posture” sitting up straight, arms at 90° and head upright, so why are you still suffering with the symptoms mentioned above after spending just an hour or so in front of your computer screen? You may also feel completely drained and fatigued at the end of your working day.
I have been working as an osteopath in a busy practice for over 10 years now and I can guarantee that when I assess them, nearly every patient of mine who works at a computer will have painful areas in their back and neck with restricted joints and tight muscles. It usually takes just a few treatments to sort out all of these problems, but if they return to the same working environment then any change I have made will only be temporary.
You probably have a pretty good idea of how you should sit at your computer so why are you still having problems? Here is a little test for you, set the timer on your phone for 15 minutes then sit as you have been advised to at your computer and start to work. By the time your alarm rings, I bet your position has changed and you will now be hunched over your desk into the typical bad posture we see in the diagram below. This shows that you cannot consciously control your sitting position and I believe that if you adopt the changes to your workstation as I have described below, you will automatically sit in the correct position without having to think about it.
Reason One – Your screen height
The height of your screen is the most important factor. Conventional wisdom says that your eyes should be aligned with the top of the screen but this is obviously incorrect, this part of the screen is usually showing the toolbar which you glance at only every now and then. Most of what you look at is in the middle third of your screen, therefore, positioning it so that your eye line is one-third from the top of the screen makes more sense. This may seem too high for you at first but it will force you to sit upright and prevent you from slouching forwards.
Reason Two – How far you sit from the screen
The second most important factor is the distance you sit from your screen. There is no optimal distance for this as it depends on your eyesight. Position your screen so that your eyes can comfortably focus on the text when you are sitting upright. This will vary slightly from person-to-person and if you still find yourself leaning forwards I recommend a visit to the opticians for an eye test. Many of my patients who present with neck pain have benefited greatly from either being prescription reading glasses, and/or having their existing prescription updated.
Reason Three – Your keyboard position
It is important that your wrists rest on the desk and support the weight of your arms but this cannot be achieved if you follow the conventional advice of sitting with your arms straight down at your side with elbows bent at 90°. Just try it and see if you can reach your keyboard. So, as you have just discovered the diagrams demonstrating this position are totally incorrect and it is not possible to type in this position. A more realistic angle at the elbow is 130° which allows you to reach your keyboard and type in a comfortable position. I always recommend the use of a soft wrist support as this allows you to relax your shoulders and let the weight of your arms rest on the desk. I also find a mouse pad with a wrist support can be beneficial.
Reason Four – Your desk and chair position
Your desk height is something that you cannot realistically change, in most cases, desks are a universal height (720 to 730 mm) and unfortunately, people do not come in universal heights! For this reason, a good adjustable office chair is essential for you to maintain correct posture. Set the height of your chair so that your arms rest comfortably on the desk in front of you with your elbows bent at 130° as described above. If you find your feet can no longer reach the floor you will need a footrest. Please bear in mind that you can only set the correct height of your screen once the height of your chair has been correctly adjusted.
If you are a laptop user, you still can set your workstation up as described above. Obviously, the main problem you have is that your screen is attached to your keyboard and therefore either your screen is too low, or your keyboard is too high This problem is easily remedied by placing your laptop on a box or shelf so that the screen is the correct height and distance from your eyes, then simply plug in a secondary keyboard and mouse and place them on the desk in front of you.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about standing desks as a way of correcting posture and promoting a healthier lifestyle. Although this all seems great in theory, I am not convinced that the long-term effects of standing in one position is a good thing as it could lead to circulatory problems like varicose veins or swollen ankles. Only time will tell, but I suspect that people will start to sit down again, particularly at the end of a long day, so we may never know.