In an ideal world, your office should be a place of comfort, productivity, and creative problem solving. But for many people, an improper computer setup can instead lead to stress and pain in the back, neck, shoulders, and extremities. Luckily, if you don’t have any existing problems, creating a healthy, ergonomic workstation can be pretty simple. Doing so can help you improve your posture, make you more productive, and significantly reduce the likelihood of chronic muscle pain or injury.
There are four main components of your computer workstation that you need to take into account: You, your chair, your keyboard, and your monitor. Making sure that all three are set up properly is key to your health and well-being at the office.
Always start with you. When selecting and positioning your chair and other items, they need to be fitted to you. A person who is 5’2” is going to have a different set up than a person who is 6’0”. As our friends at The Right Fit say, “A work station is like a shoe. It can be beautiful, expensive and brand new, but if it doesn't fit, it's going to cause problems.”
- How you sit in your chair is as important as how it’s set up. When working at your computer, you’ll want to push your hips all the way back on the seat of the chair so that your lower back is touching the backrest. Keep your feet flat on the floor and ensure that your knees are slightly lower than your hips.
- Seat height should be adjusted so your thighs are in contact with the chair and your feet are flat on the floor. The front of the seat pan should not be digging into your thighs or calves.
- Your backrest should be set at a very slight reclining angle, around 10° from vertical. You probably don’t have to get out the old protractor, but just make sure you’re not reclining too much or sitting at a stiff 90° angle.
- Adjust lumbar support to be in contact with your low back. Small cushions, pillows, or inflatables can be used to help support your lumbar spine if your chair lacks adequate lumbar support.
- Finally, armrests. Armrests really should only be used when not keying, say while you are on the phone or in a meeting. You should avoid forearm contact with armrests while actively keying and mousing. If you are not in a lot of meetings at your desk, it may not be a bad idea to get rid of them entirely.
Your Keyboard and Mouse
- The keyboard is your primary interface with the computer, so it’s essential to get it right. While a standard keyboard setup on top of the desk can be fine, a keyboard tray allows for much more adjustment and generally provides placement at a better height. Once you’ve set your chair up properly, it’s time to adjust your keyboard placement.
- Adjust the keyboard height, either using the tray or by raising or lowering the desk, so that your shoulders are relaxed, your upper arms are hanging vertical and your elbows are at about 90 degrees. Your wrists and hands should be straight. You’ll want to sit so that the keyboard is positioned directly in front of you and under your fingers.
- If you’re sitting straight up or leaning forward a bit, use the keyboard feet or tray to angle it flat or slightly away from you. If you’re reclining, tilt it slightly toward yourself. This helps keep your wrists in a straight, neutral position.
- Make sure that the mouse is as close to the keyboard as possible, as repeatedly reaching across the desk at awkward angles can cause strain over time.
- Positioning the monitor properly is essential to preventing neck and shoulder pain, and even helps with headache prevention. The monitor should be placed directly in front of you, about one arm’s length from your seated position; you should be able to touch it. For height, the top of the monitor should be about 1 or 2 inches above eye level, just enough so you cannot see the top edge. This allows your head and neck to maintain a neutral position.
- Adjust the angle of the monitor as needed to reduce glare from overhead lights, windows, and other light sources to reduce eye strain. And if you need glasses, make sure you wear them to help avoiding leaning in.
The same rules apply to laptops. It’s fine to use a laptop some of the time. They were designed for portability and travel. But if you are working on your laptop 3 or more hours a day, you will want to invest in a laptop holder and wireless keyboard and mouse. We prefer the type that covers the laptop keyboard with a document holder to remove the temptation to reach for the laptop.
Additionally, don’t forget to take regular breaks when working at a computer or desk. Every 30 minutes or so, be sure to get up from your chair, walk around for even 10 seconds. Stand up when you’re on the phone. Take a walking meeting. Go get a cup of water instead of keeping it at your desk. Anything that will break up your sitting and stretch out your muscles is great, as staying glued to a chair for eight hours straight isn’t good for anyone’s flexibility or productivity.
Pretty simple, right? While these adjustments may seem small, it’s important to remember that repetitive stress injuries and chronic pain come from a large number of actions over a long period of time. Making the effort to properly set up an ergonomic workstation, and use it correctly, can prevent such issues before they start, ensuring that you’re able to do your job comfortably and happily.