It’s increasingly apparent that careful ergonomic management is the backbone of workplace health. How can offices implement good ergonomics into their design and practice?
January 31st, 2018
Once upon a time, nobody gave health in the workplace a second thought. If the beautiful, sfumato scenes of Mad Men and The Hour are to be believed, workplaces were once hedonistic havens of in-office drinks trolleys, abundant canapés and finger food, and chain-smoking at one’s desk. Of course, this could not be further from today’s health conscious workplaces, where health is taken to span everything from mental health and a vibrant, inclusive office culture to general wellbeing and careful ergonomic management. The latter in particular is gaining ground, with it dawning on us as a workforce than an ergonomic office is a healthy office.
This realisation could not be timelier. Safe Work Australia estimates that as a nation we spend $61.8 billion annually on combatting workplace injury and illness – a figure more than double the national defence budget. What’s more, absenteeism due to poor health has significant financial ramifications. Particularly concerning are back-related injuries, which cause a quarter of all sufferers in the 18 to 55 year old age group to take 10 or more days off work per year, and cost the Australian healthcare system just under $5 billion annually. According to the World Health Organisation, the workplace is now “a priority setting for health promotion”, likely due to the potential for workplace behaviour to directly impact worker wellbeing and performance.
In light of this – and bearing in mind that workplace health is the responsibility of employees as well as employers – we’ve put together a list of basic ergonomic tips to help kick start your journey toward an ergonomic office.
The humble desk chair is one of the key building blocks for a contemporary ergonomic office. While technology and screen-driven work methodologies have allowed for astronomic increases in workplace productivity, they have also had the unpleasant side effect of making the workday more sedentary than ever; for many professionals, the average workday is now spent seated for upwards of eight hours.
Because of this, ergonomic office chairs play a central role in promoting workplace health. The best chairs are those which streamline their controls to avoid excessive and confusing knobs, buttons, and levers, and adapt intuitively to the posture and stature of individual users to provide optimised support and comfort. Choose a chair that matches your specific needs and price point, and then adjust it until it feels just right for you.
What is more, recent advances in technology mean that the functionality of ergonomic office chairs does not automatically equate to a compromise in design. The emergence of ergonomics as a key design driver means that many of today’s task chairs are statement pieces that blend functionality with contemporary design to enhance the health and design value of an office. Want more info? Have a read of our quick guide to ergonomic office desk and chair design.
No matter how good your ergonomic office chair is, you’re unlikely to reap significant benefits from it if you’re sitting in it for too long. As The Huffington Post memorably reported in 2014, sitting is the new smoking. Hyperbole aside, the article gets the central premise right, with today’s sedentary offices placing workers at risk of poor circulation, premature spinal disc degeneration, and back pain. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, back pain afflicts 1 in 6 Australian men women annually, and is in most cases related to the workplace.
To tackle this, ergonomists advocate dividing up the workday by taking regular breaks and getting up and away from your seat. An easy rule of thumb to remember is the 20-8-2 rule coined by Cornell University Professor of Ergonomics Alan Hedge: sit for twenty minutes at a time, stand for eight minutes, and then move for two. Consider investing in a sit/stand desk to make this transition between positions easier, or take advantage of agile, flexible workspaces if you’re lucky enough to have them and can work on a mobile device.
A product saying that it is “plug and play” doesn’t always guarantee that this will be the case. With any piece of ergonomic office furniture – from task chairs and sit/stand desks to monitor arms and footrests – play around with the position until you get it just right for you. Don’t pay attention to what the person next to you is doing: remember that what works for somebody else won’t necessarily work for you.
If things still aren’t feeling fantastic, don’t be afraid to look outside the box for alternative solutions. Finding it difficult to read documents on your screen? Try a multi-screen display, if that’s available to you. Eyestrain causing blurred vision or headache? Try adjusting the light levels of your screens and surroundings. If the latter isn’t possible, consider asking your boss for an additional light source that you can adjust to suit your needs. Wrists and forearms feeling tight? Try changing the height and angle of your keyboard.
Remember that if you have an issue others are likely to have experienced – or be experiencing – it too, and a solution likely already exists. Unsure where to begin? Our selection of ergonomic products and ideas is a great starting point for wrapping your head around the variety of ergonomic solutions available.
Yes, you! Too often, we view ergonomics in the workplace as yet another box checking exercise – something that eats into our productive hours for dubious returns. Yet this kind of attitude is part of the problem, as it leads to dismissal of the importance of appropriate ergonomic management. The first step to succeeding in building an ergonomic office is accepting that ergonomics are a central part of workplace health, and then going from there.
This means acknowledging that ergonomics is a data-driven discipline that uses the results of scientific testing to help improve your experience at work. It also means recognising that ideal ergonomic conditions cannot be achieved in isolation: no one product or measure will ensure optimum levels of workplace health. Rather, a holistic approach to health is necessary to see fast, significant change.
Train yourself to develop healthy work habits that don’t start and stop when you sit at your desk. Leading a more active lifestyle can reduce your risk of chronic disease and improve joint mobility, while relieving pressure on discs, improving posture and flexibility, and all around improving your health. Activity doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym at lunch: it can be everything from taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking the long way around to the printer, to even exercising at your desk.
The fact that something has always been done one way doesn’t mean that it has to be done that way forever. Some ergonomics solutions may feel strange or uncomfortable at first – laptop stands might be disorienting, desk attachments that place your keyboard in your lap may feel odd, and it may take a while for a new desk chair to feel like yours. But power through! Your boss – and, more importantly, your body – will thank you in the long run.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you are unsure of your options. Enquire as to whether your employer offers an ergonomic training program, and if not, suggest that it may be beneficial. To streamline the process of finding a qualified ergonomist to provide training, some ergonomic office furniture designers and manufacturers also offer in-house consulting services designed to equip professionals with practical, valuable ergonomic knowledge.
Catch all our other stories on ergonomic design here.
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