how to set up computer desk ergonomically to avoid a bad back

Top Ergonomic Tips For Office Workers

Is your back giving you hell? Are you dreading sitting down in front of your computer monitor tomorrow morning? With more New Zealanders than ever finding themselves tethered to their work desks day-in, day-out, you’re not the only one.

But what can you do about it?

Sure, sure, an office job might not be the most physically demanding job around, but like most any other workplace, if equipment like your desk or chair aren’t configured ergonomically, you’ll be placing your body under unnecessary physical strain.

Office ergonomics are important. There’s no two ways about it. So if you’re struggling to make it through the day while sitting at your desk without so much as a stretch, strain, or niggle, give these tips a try that will help get your setup in shape and give your back a break.

1. Start with a good chair & desk combo

The best habits in the world won’t amount to much if your equipment isn’t up to the task. A rickety old chair and a desk that’s seen better days are hardly conducive to an ergonomic working life, so it’s crucial to start from the ground up and ensure your desk and chair are helping, rather than hurting.

For those of you that are still stuck in your sitting ways, an ergonomic chair with an array of height and tilt adjustability is ideal. As is a desk that gives you ample room to position your mouse, keyboard, monitor, and other accessories without feeling cramped.

Here’s a common cause of discomfort that’s been sitting under your nose – or, in this case, that you’ve been sitting on! – the entire time: your chair. Most office chairs include adjustable heights, depths, and sitting angles, and it’s the first of these three that you want to pay attention to.

It’s been found that sitting in a chair that’s set at the incorrect height can increase the chance of your ankle swelling. The average worker’s ankles can swell anywhere from 6-8% over the course of a work day, while those that suffer from leg, back, or circulation issues can see swelling of as much as 10-15%. Those are some crazy stats!

To prevent swelling and keep your feet feeling fresh, you chair should be kept at an ideal height. This usually falls between 16-21” (40-53CM). Though this will vary from person to person.

For the very best in ergonomic office furniture, you should consider a stand-up desk. These desks give you the best of both worlds: sitting and standing. But you don’t need a chair for that, right? Wrong! In fact, it’s a common misconception that a manual or electric standing desk requires you to stand ‘round the clock. Learn more about the medical benefits of standing here.

Are standing desks good for scoliosis?

There is no cure for scoliosis, however standing desks actually provide the most benefit by having you shift between sitting and standing positions throughout the day, and keeping your muscles active. Changing your position throughout the day helps to promote spinal alignment and manage pain. However, this is not enough to correct serious problems such as scoliosis or a bulging disk. 

3. Adjust the height of your computer monitor

This next one’s been staring you in the face from day one: your monitor. Thankfully, it’s easy to fix. Simply close your eyes while sitting at your desk, take a deep breath, and then open them.

If the top third of your screen isn’t level with your eyes, use a monitor arm or its in-built height-adjustability until it is. Your aim here is to adjust the height of your monitor so you no longer have to strain your neck either up or down.

Need some tips? Try these steps:

  • Place your monitor directly in front of you so that the top sits approximately 2-3” (5-7CM) above seated eye level.
  • Position your seat at least one arm’s length away from the monitor, and adjust appropriately for your vision.
  • Minimise glare by positioning your screen away from bright light sources or windows, and adjust curtains and blinds as required.

4. Adopt good posture and sitting positions

Hands up if you tend to hunch, slouch, or slump in your chair as the hours go by? Guilty as charged! The temptation to slouch can be difficult to avoid, as we do it everywhere: from the couch to the workplace. As comfortable as it may feel in the moment, it’s far from the best thing for your body.

The optimal sitting posture is one which reflects neutral body positioning. To achieve this, sit down in your chair as if you’re sitting in a car with your feet on the floor, hands folded in your lap, and your shoulders relaxed, all the while keeping your back up against the chair. This is your ‘natural posture’, and allows your joints to rest and align naturally, reducing stress and strain on your tendons, muscles, and skeletal system.

Need some help? Try asking yourself these question as you settle into your seat:

  • Are your feet flat on the floor?
  • Are your knees equal or slightly lower than your hips?
  • Are your heels slightly in front of your kneecaps?
  • Are your armrests allowing your shoulders to rest?
  • Are your hands, wrists, and hips parallel to the floor?
  • Is your head level and your back straight?
  • Are your elbows position close to your body?

5. Make regular breaks a part of your work routine

The greatest ergonomic setup in the world won’t do much good if you’re not taking care of yourself. As covered earlier in our post on the health benefits of standing desks, prolonged periods spent sitting at your desk can increase the risk of eye strain, back pain, dry eyes, carpal tunnel, and affect overall blood circulation.

To alleviate the risks, you need to take regular breaks. This can be difficult at first, but like any new habit, once you start putting in the time it’ll become that much easier to do! When setting up your schedule, you should try to:

  1. Take a short break to stretch your legs every 30 minutes.
  2. Take a 5-10 minute break every hour. Get up out of your chair, go for a wander around the office, or change tasks.
  3. Don’t eat at your desk! Not only will you be hunched over, straining eyes, as well as neck, it forms bad habits. It’s your break, so take it!
  4. Avoid eye strain and sore eyes by resting and refocusing your eyes every now and then, looking away from your monitor and focusing on something in the distance so your eyes are forced to shift focus between near and far objects.

If you’re still finding it difficult to take a break, give some of these apps a go:

  1. Time Out
    Do you work on a Mac? Then you’re in luck! This helpful app allows you to set up custom reminders to get up and get moving.
  2. Eyeleo
    Windows user? Not to worry, this app has you covered. Eyeleo reminds you to take a break every hour, while also suggesting some great eye exercises to keep eye strain at bay.
  3. EyeCare
    An extension for Google Chrome, EyeCare’s sole job is to ensure you don’t forget to give your eyes a break.
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