Work Better and Live Longer: The Ultimate Guide to Ergonomics in the Workplace
Research shows you can drastically improve your health and do better at your job just by adjusting your posture when sitting and standing
Imagine if you could boost your production and save yourself a visit to your doctor by tweaking a few habits. True professionals know exactly what they are doing, but there are invisible obstacles that keep them from reaching their optimal selves; even miniscule adjustments in the way we work can benefit us mentally and physically. In this hyperconnected and competitive age, incorporating ergonomic furniture into modern homes and workplaces contains massive potential to create safer, more conducive environments for any endeavor.
It starts with the act of sitting. Sitting is inevitable. The common 9-5 schedule has employees working for eight hours a day, five times a week. Despite this schedule being recommended and implemented in mainstream work practice way back in 1940, modern offices still follow the typical cubicle set-up associated with traditional work environments, encouraging a company’s workers to sit most of the day while going about their to-do lists.
Times have changed, however. The latest studies have found that today, the Filipino worker, on average, spends 45.5 minutes in traffic going to the office. Assuming a two-way trip every day, that’s over one and a half hours per day spent in transit, which is already a fortunate scenario for many. Even a large chunk of leisurely activities involve sitting, whether it’s having dinner with family, browsing the internet, or watching TV. Unless he or she works as a bank teller, a waiter, a retailer, an assembly line worker, or any such job that requires a person to be on their feet, most desk workers will spend their most of their day sitting down.
Sitting is commonly associated with rest, recovery, and energy-conservation. However, the latest research reveals several harmful (and even life-threatening) effects of sitting. A meta-analysis of 47 studies shows that sitting for more than eight hours a day increases a person’s chances of developing type 2 diabetes by 91%, cancer by 13%, and cardiovascular disease by 15%. Aside from buoying these risks, the sedentary lifestyle that traditional work spaces and work-from-home types have normalized may have the potential to detriment cognitive function as well. Preliminary studies have also linked longer hours of sitting with reduced thickness of the medial temporal lobe of the brain, the area of the brain that corresponds with memory recall.
So I should stand the whole day right?
Wrong. While it is a welcome break from hunching over for most of the day, prolonged periods of standing (standing for greater than 50% of a working shift) has also been connected with complications such as poor blood circulation in the legs (venous insufficiency), degenerative damage to the joints of the spine, hips, knees, and feet, as well as increased risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – disorders that involve skeletal muscles and bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and joints. Also, prolonged standing can also cause muscle fatigue, compromising a person’s ability to generate force from his or her legs.
At Stance, we’d recommend that the best method to avoid complications is to work with a mixture of sitting and standing, and equipping oneself with proper ergonomic equipment. When alternating between sitting and standing, a method called “sit/stand,”
one can reap both the cognitive and physical benefits of each position, while avoiding the discomforts that come with subscribing to one position for the whole work duration. When done regularly, sit/stand desks have been revealed to have long term benefits to one’s health, and to the amount and quality of work generated by an organization. If you want to test this out for yourself, taking standing breaks, or sitting down every now and then if your job involves a lot of standing.
Want to take the benefits a notch further? Introducing ergonomic furniture into your set-up holds huge potential to make you feel and work even better. On a larger scale, improving office furniture across large organizations all over the country has the power to boost public health.
Preventing the risks of mortality due to prolonged sitting requires 60-75 minutes of moderate physical activity every day, but for those who do not have the time (or will power) to exercise that long, simply tweaking their workstation and paying attention to key regions of the body while sitting down offer an immediate solution.
The problem is much bigger than just sitting and standing. The way that tools are positioned, and the way we deliberately set the angles and contact points of our bodies can do wonders in relieving neck, back, wrist, and leg pain and allow deeper focus on work. Beyond promoting the sit/stand method, ergonomic science imparts specific knowledge on how to sit, how to stand, and how to avoid damaging your body.
Are you reading this on a laptop?
If so, your proportions are probably out of order. Is the dome of your head pointing straight up at the ceiling? Are you looking straight ahead when you look at the top of the screen? Do your forearms and wrists form a straight line when you type? As you will learn later, by sticking the screen and keyboard so close together, a laptop will automatically force you to sacrifice either the integrity of your neck or your wrists.
What about your chair? Is it height-adjustable? Are your elbows currently resting on the chair, or floating above your mouse and keyboard without support? Are your feet dangling, causing you to cross your legs? What about the seat? Did you know it’s supposed to be deep enough to end near the juncture made by the back of your thigh and the back of your knee?
More than being a body of knowledge, ergonomics is an applied method. It is not limited to more comfortable chairs and standing desks. The benefit of an ergonomic chair is not having a better office chair, but having a chair that supports your body as you seek the proper angles and positions of your limbs. The same goes with standing desks, adjustable desks, lumbar supports, foot rests, and other tools.These are merely accessories that help your body achieve the proper posture in any setting. The active approach to learn and apply what you know should still come from you, and it’s as good a time as any to take your health into your own hands.
Occupational diseases are complications or conditions sustained due to the nature of one’s work. Most cases of occupational diseases in the Philippines commonly involve the musculoskeletal system. It appears there is a widespread mismanagement of workers with regards to their spine, along with the bones and muscles connected to it.
In 2015, work-related musculoskeletal diseases made up 78,716 out of 125,973 cases of occupational disease reported to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA).
According to the report, musculoskeletal disorders are conditions “caused or made worse by work such as exposure to forceful exertions, highly repetitive motions, awkward body postures, vibrations, etc.” These diseases consist of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Shoulder Tendinitis, Neck-Shoulder Pain, and Back Pain.
Common symptoms of these include swelling, stiffness, tightness, “pins and needles” sensations, and weakness of grip in the associated regions that typically last more than two days. Work-related musculoskeletal diseases have seen a steady rise in the country. In fact, the same PSA report claims that one out of every three cases of occupational disease reported in 2015 were due to back pain.
When it comes to work, workers are easily drawn into productivity mode. They don’t realize subtle elements that gradually degrade their body. It’s natural for a worker to place ergonomics low in terms of priority. If a deadline is fast approaching, the employee’s focus is spent on finishing a report or sending an email in time; he or she likely won’t focus on the curvature of their back,
or the position of their wrists as they type. After all, they’re paid for their ability to churn out outputs, not for the way they sit.
It’s a common oversight for FIlipino workers, and research also reflects how this oversight can lead to more injuries. For example, from 2013 to 2015, cases of musculoskeletal diseases in workplaces reported to the PSA rose from 45 572 to 78 716. That’s almost a 75% rise in the number of cases. Further studies compute that 17 out of every 18 employees in the Filipino workforce of 38.8 million do not benefit from proper work conditions, meaning work environments that fully allow them to achieve optimal occupational and work safety. When ergonomics is introduced into the modern workplace, it allows organizations to be mindful of the factors that contribute to looming injuries.
While raising awareness about the issue is important, it is also clear that governments and organizations also have a greater role to play in alleviating the detrimental effects of bad ergonomic practices. It is the role of world-class organizations not only to provide health benefits to workers through their healthcare, but also to take a proactive approach to injuries. That way, they can save up on costs and keep the worker healthy and allow him to produce optimal output. By bringing ergonomic practices in the mainstream, both employers and employees can work together against occupational injuries.
When a company’s administration takes steps to educate their workforce, while implementing office-wide adjustments to work stations, the potential to save is remarkable. More and more, studies show that the comfort of workers is indicative of a company’s growth. Who knew you could save so much by switching stances?
Anthropometry: The Science of the Body
Physical workplace ergonomics is grounded on the principle of Anthropometry. Anthropometry is the study of body measurements to determine differences between individuals and groups. Because measurements vary across age, gender, culture, and occupations, results will be different for each person. Ergonomic specialists (ergonomists) take measurements of weight, height, reach, wingspan, natural body angles, and similar information to guide them when customizing working spaces.
There are two types of anthropometric measurements: static and dynamic. The former deals with measurements of the body while sitting still or standing. These measurements include data such as weight and height, as well as skeletal, and muscular measurements. The latter deals with measurements of the body while it is in motion. One dynamic measurement is clearance, which is the amount of free space allotted for the body to move around with. Another is reach, which refers to the ability to extend the legs, arms, and fingers comfortably without over-extension.
After classifying and comparing the different data gathered, ergonomists can communicate this data to designers so that they may craft furniture, and to employers, so that they can create regulations, guidelines, and promote education amongst workers.
Chairs, desks, risers, and other tools must therefore be adjusted to suit each individual worker.
Different body shapes create different requirements for dimensions. For example, the length of a seat from front to back should allow a person to sit back comfortably, but also meet his or her leg near the junction of the back of the thigh and back and the knee, without pressing on the back of the knee. Also, the worker’s feet should be placed flat on the ground at all times. These requirements, among many others, call for matching furniture that can adjust so that the different dimensions of all bodies can be accounted for. This is the importance of anthropometric measurements.
Ultimately, ergonomics aims to design for extremes, design for averages, and design for adjustability to accommodate all types of body measurements. If two people, for instance, are of the same height but one has much longer arms and legs than the other, then an ergonomically sound chair should be adjustable enough to provide comfort in both cases. The same chair should allow the different workers to apply the proper angles to their limbs when in resting position. These angles will be discussed in a later section.
Also, the chair provided should ideally come with an adjustable desk or surface that allows the worker to reap the benefits of intermittently standing during work intervals. Taking breaks between sitting and standing not only allows a worker to switch between different tasks at any time, but it also relieves tension that has accumulated in the legs, neck, shoulder, and the upper and lower spine.
Ergonomics for those in a rush
Ergonomics is the scientific discipline that studies the interactions between the worker and his or her environment. On a wider scale, it is an all-encompassing study of the workplace. Ergonomics can be classified into three branches. The first is physical ergonomics. This branch of ergonomics deals with ergonomics as it relates to physical activity and safety. All discussions of physiology, proper posture, and injury risk reduction fall under this category. The second branch, cognitive ergonomics, deals with matching infrastructure in the workplace with cognitive and mental capacity. Its domain ranges anywhere from mental benefits caused by proper posture and work stance (decreased stress, cognitive ability, etc.) to designating different rooms in the office for specific functions, allowing workers to adapt a different working mode per room. Finally, the last branch, organizational ergonomics, deals with matching employees with the proper organizational structures, policies, and processes. For example, companies may consult with an ergonomist to make sure that their cubicle set-ups provide monitors and chairs that allow for maximum comfort for their employees. Moreover, providing lectures and seminars on ergonomics may fall under the duties of the company’s administration and human resources department. For the purposes of this article, physical ergonomics will be the main point of discussion. However, applying the correct ergonomic principles in work will benefit your body, your mind, and your office’s synergy all at the same time.
As an organization, it is easy to overlook ergonomic practices until the benefits are laid out. A study performed on workers in the United States showed that MSDs can consume up to a third of a worker’s compensation costs. Over the past years,however, companies have been shifting their office practices and have seen amazing results. By promoting education on ergonomics and offering the right set-up, companies may use this money instead to boost their bottomline. For instance, by reducing sitting time to 66 minutes per day, workers in Minnesota felt 54% less upper back and neck pain, while reporting improved states of productivity, focus, comfort, energy, health, relaxation, and happiness.
In the mid-90s, a California-based computer manufacturer of 3800 workers called “Silicon Graphics, Inc.” saw a 50% drop in their cases of Cumulative Trauma Disorder (wear and tear on muscles from continuous use over a long period of time), and a 41% drop in reported upper-limb disorders, which had previously accounted for 70% of the company’s medical costs. How? They accomplished this through interventions introduced within the period of 1994-1996. Mainly, the administration hired ergonomists to evaluate their office set-up and facilitated learning opportunities for their staff to learn proper ergonomic practices. All the while, sit-stand workstations, and height-adjustable surfaces and keyboards were introduced to their workers.
In 1997, another company, Siemens Auburn Hills, under Siemens Automotive, an automatic automobile systems manufacturer of 14 000 employees, provided back cushions, lumbar supports, keyboard and mouse rests, foot rests, document holders, and adjustable chairs to their workers, who mostly worked on desktops. The result? Calculations say that Siemens Auburn Hills saved 20 000 work hours over the two years they spent addressing complaints on MSDs. Instead of tending to their injuries, employees were free to work without interruption. That’s 20 000 hours of added work without any new hires.
For our next case study, we have American Express Financial Advisors (AEFA), a company of 8000 employees from different locations in the United States in the early 90s. They consisted of computer and phone-intensive desk workers who, on average, would spend 3-7 hours a day answering phone calls. After widespread complaints regarding discomfort and pain in key musculoskeletal regions, the company conducted evaluations and training for the workers, as well as mass purchasing a new batch of chairs based on consultations with the employees on which ones were the most comfortable. Also, AEFA collaborated with designers to produce customized adjustable furniture, while also establishing an ergonomics function in their administrative department. Ultimately, they were able to reduce MSD compensation costs by 80%, from 484 000 to 98 000 within the years 1992- 1996.
Still not convinced? Well, a metaanalysis of over 250 case studies also found that ergonomic improvements in office furniture and design not only reduces lost work days and absenteeism due to MSDs, but also improves the turnover of outputs from the side of the workers. As a cost-benefit analysis, the study calculates that on average, ergonomic investments save companies over 10$ for every 1$ spent, as well as improve workplace performance by 17.7%. Now that’s bang for your buck.
Static load: stretch it out!
Static Load refers to the amount of strain exerted when holding the same position for a long period of time. When sitting down or standing up, a worker’s muscles are still contracting to maintain the posture. Prolonged “rests” can actually cause soreness, and muscles are actually working even when they are not in motion. In fact, static load is incurred effortlessly. A load that lasts four seconds or more on any part of the musculoskeletal system when holding a static position can already be considered a static load. In other words, simply sitting down for a few seconds already means you’re building static load in musculoskeletal regions, and in your upper and lower limbs.
Static load causes restricted blood flow, and allows the build up of metabolic waste products such as lactic acid in the muscles. If left unrelieved, static load may result in soreness, fatigue, and work-related MSDs because of the strain placed on muscles, tendons, and joints.
Any worker who traditionally sits or stands for most of the day is prone to these symptoms. A frontdesk assistant who spends the majority of the day standing up, a call center agent who has his arms and wrists awkwardly stretched out in front of him while typing, or a shirt manufacturer who hunches over a silkscreen for several hours, all experience static load in different parts of the body.
While reducing static load to zero is impossible, you can prevent its excessive buildup by stretching. The body needs opportunities to stretch and recover every few minutes. By allocating breaks to stretch, you can rejuvenate neck and back muscles that have stiffened from sitting or standing too long. (For those suffering from sciatica and lower back pain, we’ve provided a list of easy and effective stretches here.)
To add to its physical benefits, stretching exercises have also been correlated with improved cognitive performance. Stretching has been found to increase cognitive flexibility, and executive function. This means that simply taking the time to stretch before or during work intervals can significantly increase someone’s ability to switch attention between different tasks (cognitive flexibility) and to focus on achieving goal-oriented work within a specified period of time (executive function).
A sit/stand method is recommended to avoid prolonged static positions. Intermittently switching positions will allow you to dissipate static load and temporarily it to other regions. Still, adopting the sit/stand method by itself is not enough. One must also make sure that he or she is standing or sitting properly. The next section will break down how to position different parts of the body in order to minimize static load while sitting or standing. When used as a mental checklist, these practices can rid one’s body of aches and soreness so that a worker can focus purely on the task at hand.
Safety First: The Proper Way To Work
What is the proper way to work? In general, sitting exerts more load on the upper and lower spine compared to standing. On the other hand, standing is associated with more discomfort, poor blood circulation, and degenerative damage to the lower extremities, while posing its own risk of MSDs. To relieve lower back muscles, one needs to stand. To take care of one’s thighs, legs, and feet one needs to sit back down.
How do we get the best of both worlds? Either sitting or standing for prolonged periods of time can have adverse effects on the body, so adopting a sit/stand method gives the body the ample breaks it needs. It doesn’t stop there, however. Ergonomics also stipulates proper ways both to sit and to stand in order to receive optimal blood circulation, avoid muscle aches, and achieve maximum comfort at all times. Here are a couple of reminders on how to maintain proper posture and stay fresh while working. These tips will mostly involve sitting down, although some advice will apply for standing as well.
First, keeping the spine inclined slightly backwards and the neck vertical decreases force exerted on the neck and shoulder muscles, such as the cervical erector spinae, trapezius and thoracic erector spinal. A common belief is that keeping the back straight at a 90% angle is the best alternative to slumping, although research shows that reclining the back at a 110-130% degree angle along while using a lumbar support exerts the least pressure on spinal muscles and discs. While sitting back, it’s best to place a pillow or pad at the lower back to account for the space left at the bottom of the backrest.
In order to keep the neck at a vertical position, it’s best not to stare down at your work.
The top of the desktop or laptop screen should be placed at eye level. If the screen is too low, it’s best to place a stack of books under the device or to purchase a laptop stand. If a standing or adjustable desk is being used, then it would be optimal to use one that allows the worker to place the screen high enough to meet the eyes in a straight line. Also, it’s best to position the top of the screen 15-27 inches away from the eyes. Research shows that placing screens incrementally higher (from 80 cm to 120 cm) correspondingly brings the neck to a more vertical level. While doing so, the trunk muscles also tend to lean further back, which allows the back to stay neutral. Lastly, for jobs that include taking plenty of phone calls, avoid cradling the phone between the shoulder and ear. Instead, use a wireless headset to keep the neck vertical and to free the hands up.
If working on a separate document (i.e. a hardcopy of a report that’s being referenced while typing), avoid placing it flat next to the keypad. This will only force the worker to look down at it. In this case, it is recommended that the worker also purchase a document holder that places the reference material slightly below or right next to the screen.
Elbows are most relaxed when positioned in a 90% – 120% angle, with support underneath them.
Keeping the spine vertical along with elbows resting on support has been shown to reduce the activity in the trapezius muscles in the shoulder and the thoracic erector spinae and rhomboids muscles in the upper back and ribs. To support the elbows, height-adjustable armrests are recommended. To keep elbows at a right angle, the worker’s mouse and keyboard should be placed near enough so that the worker won’t have to reach too far to use them.
Wrists should be kept flat, parallel to the forearms, in order to allow for maximum blood circulation and minimal strain. This applies when typing. Curl the fingers inwards towards the wrist, and one types in a flexed position; type with the palm up, and one adopts an extended position, but keep the wrists flat and the worker’s hands remain in a neutral position. It’s also best not to rest the wrists on any surface, and instead allow the wrists to “float” above the keyboard, allowing the forearms to do the heavy lifting when hovering above the keypad.
The mouse, on the other hand, should be kept right beside the worker instead of in front of him to avoid overextending. By adopting these simple methods, the worker can avoid complications such as carpal tunnel and wrist tendonitis. Remember the discussion on why the laptop is structurally not ergonomic? The solution is simple: separate the screen from the keypad and mouse. Purchase a separate keyboard and mouse and place them in a drawer underneath the screen so that your wrists can remain at rest while you work.
When sitting, the knees and lower leg should form a 90% angle while feet lay flat on the ground. The knees should be even with, or even slightly higher than the hips.
As discussed earlier, the end of the seat of the chair should meet the thigh slightly before the juncture of the back of the knee. Also, the worker’s chair should be made of soft breathable fabric so as to allow for blood circulation.
An ergonomically sound chair should be adjustable for extreme cases, meaning people with long legs can boost the seat up if their knees are not at a right angle, and people with shorter legs can lower the seat to keep their feet from dangling. If the feet are still too far from the ground, one can either use a footrest or improvise by placing a box on the ground in front of the chair. Using a footrest unloads tension on the back and assists in keeping the spine in a neutral vertical position.
The body naturally tends to slouch after 15 minutes. To freshen and up and reset your posture, take a break to stretch, then after a while, shift to a standing work position. Harder floors (like concrete) exert more force on the soles of the feet and lower limbs when standing up. To cushion the force between yourself and the ground, anti-fatigue matts provide a softer surface for your feet to balance on. These will help you avoid lower limb disorders and foot fatigue.
In summary, keep your spine leaning slightly backwards, your neck vertical, your elbows rested on a surface, wrists aligned with forearms, your knees at a 90% angle with your legs, and feet flat on the floor. Simple advice, but it saves tons of time and money.
The Big Picture
Ergonomics is a practice that paves the way for workers to achieve their optimal selves. The recommendations in this white paper should not be looked at as instant remedies to occupational injuries, or expected to act as fast-released stimulants that make workers churn out reports. Sound ergonomic practice does not mean that an employee doesn’t need to exercise after work, to eat healthy, or to go the extra mile to advance in their jobs. The motivation to excel in all fields occur alongside, not due to, appropriate work infrastructure. Proper ergonomics is not about quick fixes, but a process that flows from the top-down and the bottom-up.
That being said, there are companies that have altered their work culture to create a better
working environment for their employees by promoting key ergonomic principles. This article has given several examples of companies who have invested in proper workspace design, education, and engineering interventions. By investing in health, they have seen quantified growth both in human resource capital and in their bottom line while protecting the basic right to occupational health.
The examples are mostly based in the United States, and some taken from decades back. We recommend that more methodological studies take place in the Philippines, especially with the growing prevalence of local MSD cases. The fact that we are a developing country implores us to allocate resources better and be smart about how we grow our businesses. By focusing on how our industry workers participate in the global economy. Currently, there are only a few local sources for ergonomic furniture, and the government has only recently started implementing seminars for common workplaces. With deeper partnerships between ergonomic practitioners, academe and the government, more progress can be made in terms of educating the public and enforcing measures that will be beneficial in the long term.
This white paper shows that work consists of small, interconnected habits that are backed by principles of physiology, medicine, psychology, engineering, and interior design. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, says, “Change might not be fast and it isn’t always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.” This white paper is aimed first to make you understand the importance of ergonomics, but more importantly, to make you zero in on these small habits that may be affecting your work. Just by focusing on how you position your arms, or the angle of your legs and back, or taking standing breaks, for example, you are already taking the first steps in treating your body right.
There is a proper posture for every job, and science has this carefully mapped out. There are tons of diagrams, pictures, and checklists that build consensus on the proper angles to maintain when standing and sitting, and illustrate where to place pads and supports. There is tons of research on where to place each tool in your office setup. There is a discipline that trains experts to evaluate, assess, and give recommendations for every office space based on ergonomic principles. However, the most crucial expert that ergonomics wishes to train is you, the common worker.
We recommend employers to build their knowledge and apply administrative changes accordingly, but you don’t have to wait for big changes in office structure to give yourself an edge. You already have everything you need.