Our technology has evolved drastically in the past half-century, changing how we live and work. Many jobs are now done exclusively on computers, and remote work arrangements allow employees to perform job duties away from a designated workplace. Modern technology and work arrangements have enabled unprecedented flexibility, but they come with a cost. Prolonged sitting and deskwork can lead to serious occupational health and safety issues. Workers can prevent and alleviate these issues with office ergonomics.
You may have a policy or agreement to define the terms of remote work arrangements, but generally, employers have less control over an employee’s remote work environment. Employers should work with employees to improve their workstation design in order to prevent occupational injuries. Thankfully, a standing desk isn’t the only way to achieve an ergonomic workspace. Read on to learn how you can better support your body and your workforce.
What is ergonomics?
Ergonomics is the study of how our environment works for us and the tasks we do. An ergonomic workstation is one that fits your body as well as your job. Employees who work at ergonomic workstations are less likely to experience headaches, eye strain, neck and back pain, and tendon problems. Bodily reaction and exertion accounted for the greatest number of lost-time claims in 2021, signalling that workers need to modify their workstations to protect their overall health. Employers should ensure workstations are designed for the employee (and not the other way around).
Risks associated with office work
If you’ve ever experienced fatigue after a day of deskwork and wondered why, you’re not alone. Many office workers struggle to find the energy for physical activity after their workday, despite being sedentary for hours. This is because, despite being mostly still, your body works hard to keep you upright in a sitting position.
Holding awkward postures and repetitive movements (like typing) can lead to a range of occupational health and safety problems, including musculoskeletal and repetitive motion injuries (RSI). These problems rarely happen after an acute event. In most cases, they develop over time. Employees need to be aware of the risks associated with repetitive movements to take preventative measures to protect their body and health.
A worker’s sitting posture and the length of time they sit are both risk factors. Sitting requires muscles in the upper body to hold itself in a fixed position, which squeezes blood vessels and lowers blood supply to these muscles. Reduced blood supply fatigues muscles (which is why you may feel tired after work) and increases the risk of injury. Among the problems associated with prolonged sitting, office workers can develop:
- Varicose veins;
- Leg numbness;
- Stiff necks;
- More frequent muscle pulls, cramps, and strains during sudden stretching;
- Premature degeneration of spinal discs;
- Metabolic syndrome (such as diabetes);
- Heart disease; and
- Bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other tendon injuries.
The presence of other health problems, like arthritis or emotional stress, can increase a worker’s risk of injury. Additionally, injuries can lead to mental health concerns. Workstations designed with office ergonomics in mind can help prevent the development of issues associated with prolonged sitting.
Office ergonomics is an employer issue
Employers should prioritize office ergonomics to prevent work-related injuries. All Canadian employers must provide employees with work environments that are safe and healthy to work in. Part of this responsibility includes making employees aware of the hazards in their workplace, the risks associated with them, and how to eliminate or mitigate them. It’s easier for employers to control the work environment for onsite employees; employers can choose ergonomic furniture and create policies and procedures to reduce the risk of injury.
The issue of occupational health and safety becomes more difficult when employees work remotely out of their own spaces. New estimates suggest that nearly a quarter of the Canadian workforce (22.4% of workers in all Canadian provinces) worked most of their hours from home in April 2022. Employers should work with remote employees to ensure their home workstations meet the same health and safety requirements as those in company offices. Speak to your local government department responsible for occupational health and safety to understand your jurisdiction’s laws.
Protect workers by communicating the risks associated with office work and prolonged sitting, and recommend actions they can take to improve office ergonomics and overall wellbeing while working a desk job. Below are a few common mistakes office workers make and how you can make your workstation more ergonomic.
Mistake 1: Not Working from a Desk
When employees made the necessary transition to remote work in 2020, many didn’t have designated workstations at home. But working from your dining room or couch doesn’t provide the structure and support your body needs. Dining room tables are also generally too tall to support a neutral wrist position when typing or using the computer mouse. A good sitting position may look slightly different for everyone based on their body proportions, but generally, you want to sit upright and align your head, shoulders, and hips. Without proper lumbar support from a supportive desk chair, backs get too tired to maintain good posture and will naturally hunch over work. If working from home, invest in a desk and follow our tips below to make it work for you.
Mistake 2: Not Adjusting Your Furniture
A piece of furniture, like a chair, might be labelled as ergonomic, but it rarely comes out of the box perfectly moulded to your body. You’ll have to adjust the components of your workstation to make it work for you. Here are some tips:
- Raise your chair so that when you place your hands on your keyboard while seated, your elbows are at a 90° to 120° angle.
- When seated, ensure your feet are flat against the floor. Use a sturdy footrest if needed.
- Adjust the height of your desk or raise it with sturdy blocks if you need more room to raise your chair.
- If your chair doesn’t come with lumbar support, use a lumbar pillow or a rolled-up towel and place it between the back of your chair and the curve of your back.
Mistake 3: Sitting Still for Too Long
With all the risks associated with prolonged sitting, it’s important to switch positions and take frequent activity breaks to stretch and move your body. When possible, take a five-minute break every 40 to 60 minutes to enjoy vigorous activity (like jumping jacks) or gentle movement (like walking or stretching). Activity gives your heart, lungs, and muscles exercise and prevents muscle strain from holding the same position for too long.
Switch up your workstation when you can, too. If you work on a portable computer, move to different stations and alternate between sitting and standing. If you work at a static workstation, consider taking phone calls while standing.
Mistake 4: Keeping Objects Out of Reach
Reaching can cause unnecessary muscle strain and hyperextension. Place the items you frequently use (like pens, notepads, and headphones) in close reach of your torso to minimize how far you have to reach to grab them. If you must store items farther away, stand up to grab them instead of reaching.
Mistake 5: Storing Items Under the Desk
When sitting at your desk, there should be enough clearance underneath for your knees, thighs, and feet. Storing items underneath your desk can constrain your lower body, restrict mobility, and prevent you from being as close to your computer as you should be to achieve a good sitting position. Remove clutter and storage beneath the desk when possible.
Mistake 6: Operating Phones with Your Hands
Holding a phone to your ear with your shoulder can lead to a stiff neck, and holding it with your hands can put strain on your wrist. Instead, put the phone on speaker or use a headset. You’ll also be able to use your hands freely without contorting your body on a call. If taking video calls on a tablet, use a stand instead of holding it for the length of the call.
Mistake 7: Neglecting to Assess Your Body’s Needs
Between cramming work in to meet tight deadlines, back-to-back meetings, and focussed independent work, it can be easy to forget to check how your body feels. But taking a minute every hour to assess your condition can help you make the adjustments necessary to prevent long-term problems. When focussed on work, you may not notice a minor pain or slow numbing in your legs until they develop into more painful sensations. When you regularly check how your body feels, you can address these issues early, adjust your workstation or your position, and feel better at the end of your workday.
Additional Office Ergonomics Tips
Office ergonomics are a key part of keeping your onsite and remote workers safe, healthy, and happy. While monitoring the work environments of remote workers can be challenging, you can provide clear expectations and guidelines for success in a remote work policy. An informed workforce is a safe workforce. Keep employees aware of workplace hazards and how they can manage them to prevent occupational injuries.