In the last 50 years, the workplace has gotten more and more sedentary. As office jobs became increasingly prevalent, the posture-related pain increased as well. In addition, even though we were sitting more and more, the workstation wasn’t usually set up to promote good posture and biomechanics. Thankfully, as we have learned more about the effects of prolonged sitting, an increasing number of workplaces and companies are taking the initiative to provide good and ergonomically correct workstations to help prevent pain. This is important because spending our working lives in poor postural positions can negatively affect us as we get older and can contribute to back and neck pain long after we are done working. It is important for office workers to become educated about good posture and for most of us that starts with our workstations.

Understanding Your Spines Natural Shape

To understand good posture, we need to first go over the neutral position of the spine. Our spine has four different curves. The neck and low back are positioned in a backwards c-shape or “lordosis” and the mid back and sacrum and positioned in a forward c-shape or kyphosis. These curves are not harsh and form an overall fairly neutral line. When sitting we should be upright with equal weight through the hips and the low back supported. The shoulders and chest should be open and the head positioned over the rest of the body. It should feel natural and comfortable. When we slouch the thoracic spine slumps and the shoulders round forward. The chin pokes forward along the head so that when looking at someone from the side, the head looks like it is positioned in front of the body. This poor posture can result in chronic neck pain, headaches, mid and low back pain, difficulty with breathing and shoulder and arm pain.

Good Posture Starts with Your Desk and Chair

Example of poor posture at a desk

An example of poor posture at a desk. Notice how the head and chin jet forward and the middle back is exaggeratedly pushed out.

A desk should be positioned at a height where the elbows can be positioned at ~90 degrees when typing and have a set up to allow the monitor to be raised so that the eyes are looking at the upper ⅓ of the screen.

When looking at a chair there are several important considerations. A chair should have five wheels to allow easy moving without much effort, be adjustable in terms of chair height and have a back which can be adjusted to either stay erect or tilt various degrees and lock in place. The back of the chair should come to the top of the shoulder blades and should have lumbar support which can be altered to customize the location of the support.

The depth of the seat should be adjusted to allow for 2-3 finger-widths between the chair and your upper calves and the feet should be able to touch the floor with the knees bent at 90 degrees.

Armrests should be adjustable and care should be taken during set-up to make sure they are not too far away from your body in width as this can contribute to slouching.

Your chair should have a full warranty and should be made to last for years while allowing you to remain in a supportive upright position during prolonged sitting.

Additional Equipment and Alternative Workstation Setups

Example of how to sit properly in a desk. Notice how the posture keeps the spine upright.

Example of how to sit properly in a desk. Notice how the posture keeps the spine upright.

The equipment we use at our desks also contributes to our postural position. Conventional keyboards and mice are not ergonomically designed as much as they are easy for manufacturers to assemble. A split keyboard allows the shoulders to stay open, places the wrists in a neutral position, and promotes upright posture. Here at Life’s WorkPT, we recommend the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 from Microsoft.

The addition of wrist supports can also help prevent excessive pressure on the wrists from the desk during typing and mousing. You can find rice-filled or gel-filled pads online as well. Using inexpensive tools such as a document holder to keep your document upright next to your screen can help. Also, a headset to avoid holding a phone to your ear can also make a big difference in the stress placed on the body during prolonged computer and desk use.

Standing desks are becoming an increasingly popular option and can be very useful in allowing a worker to change position throughout the day, These newer types of unconventional desks are becoming more and more commonplace. Adjustable sit-stand desks can allow individuals more freedom of movement during the workday and prevent pain. There are even more creative desks such as the treadmill desk which will likely become more common in the coming years.

Lastly, some easy considerations in setting up your workplace include screen glare and lighting. Making these simple adjustments prevents having to squint or lean forward when working at the computer. Most importantly, limit your amount of time sitting and take frequent breaks every 30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be a long break to be effective. The more you move, the better you will feel. Office desks don’t have to be uncomfortable and by taking a close look at the ergonomics of your office space you can prevent pain and injury.

If you have any questions about your ergonomics, we at Life’s Work Physical Therapy are more than happy to answer any questions and help you set up an ergonomic consultation at your place of work!