Ergonomic Tips for Your Office

Haven't got time for the pain that accompanies office work? Read on to find out how to make your office ergonomically correct.
Magazine Contributor
10 min read

This story appears in the July 2000 issue of Subscribe »

Last February, OSHA proposed a workplace ergonomic standard designed to protect workers whose jobs put them at risk for repetitive strain injuries (RSI). According to the agency, work-related musculoskeletal disorders (including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, herniated disc and lower back pain) cause American workers to lose more than 600,000 workdays each year, sapping productivity and forcing employers to spend an ever-increasing amount on worker's compensation claims and associated health costs.

While intense opposition from business leaders, labor officials and Congress makes it extremely likely the new ergonomics standard will be appealed , the proposal has made business owners both large and small more aware of the link between a healthy, ergonomically-designed workplace and the productivity of their business.

Even if you don't have any employees, this link is especially applicable to homebased businesses. Given the tremendous stress and responsibility of running a homebased business on your own, it's even more important to pay attention to your work environment and its effect on your body, says Dora Potter, owner of Rockville Center, New York, ergonomics consulting firm, Ergnomic by Design, which specializes in computer workstation safety. "No matter where you're working or what you're doing, ergonomic [improvements] will very definitely contribute to your health," says Potter. "The positions you work in, the amount of time you spend performing tasks, and the way in which you use your body in relation to the materials around you is going to improve your productivity and efficiency because you'll stay healthy for a longer period of time and be able to work more comfortably."

How do you know if a poorly designed work environment is hurting you? Your body will tell you, with symptoms ranging from headaches and lower back pain to carpal tunnel syndrome (a syndrome where the tissue surrounding a nerve in the forearm swells, causing pain and difficulty in movement). In an office setting, CTS and other related injuries are generally caused by repetitive motion, such as typing or using a mouse, but sitting in awkward positions-like when you cradle a phone between your shoulder and head-for long periods of time can also play a role, says Potter.

Though you can't completely eliminate typing, using a mouse or answering the phone from your daily routine as a business owner, changing various aspects of your workspace to meet ergonomic standards will certainly reduce the chances of contracting these injuries.

A former staff writer for Entrepreneur magazine, G. David Doran's articles have appeared in Japan Inc., Pool and Spa News and No-Fi magazine.

Simple Adjustments To Make In Your Office

Desk. Setting your PC on an antique roll top desk may look classy, but ergonomic workspaces are really more about function than form, says Potter. "Most desks aren't really made for keyboarding," she says, "because their height forces you to work 'uphill,' keeping your forearms raised and bending your wrists at a severe right angle to get at the keyboard. You really don't want to be bending your wrists when you type for long periods of time."

If purchasing a new desk is out of the question, Potter suggests raising your seat and using a footrest so your wrists are at a straight angle, or bringing the keyboard down to comfortable level by attaching a sliding keyboard tray to the desk. Another ergonomic alternative is to move your keyboard to a typewriter stand with a pullout or folding leaf. "If you set that up in front of a standard desk," says Potter, "you'll have a good height for your keyboard as well as keeps your monitor at eye level."

Keyboard. All keyboards are not created equal, especially when it comes to ergonomic design, says Jon Biggs, director of marketing for computer input device designer Kinesis Corp. "The design of the typical flat 104-key keyboard-the kind that comes with most PCs these days-really doesn't take into account the physical needs of the average user," says Biggs. "If you're going to be typing for extended periods, you really want a board that conforms to the physiology of a human hand as well as to your body instead of one that forces you into awkward and painful positions."

There are a wide variety of adjustable keyboards on the market today, including "tent-structured" boards that reduce wrist flexion, expandable boards that can be adjusted for the user's shoulder width, and contoured boards that minimize wrist extension. The most expensive boards, which can cost as much as $300, incorporate all these features.

Chair. Again, function is far more important than form when choosing an ergonomic chair for your home office. They may not be pretty, but a basic ergonomic chair will give you both upper and lower back support as well as the ability to adjust its height.

Potter tells clients who use their computer mouse for long periods to look for chairs with height-adjustable armrests. Resting your elbow on it will keep the strain off your shoulders and allow your hand to be at a right angle to the mouse, which should be positioned next to the keyboard.

Skimping on a new ergonomic chair (which can cost anywhere from $400 to $1000) isn't advisable, says Potter, but in a pinch, you can improve the back support of your old chair with add-on cushions. Says Potter, "Just be careful you don't get something so large that it literally ends up shoving you off the seat."

Monitor. Eyestrain may not be as painful or debilitating as CTS, but it can reduce your efficiency just the same. If your monitor screen is obscured by sunlight, you can either spend $10 to $50 on a glare screen, or you can simply move the monitor, says Potter.

"Your monitor should be at a right angle to the window, not directly in front because your eyes will have to struggle to adjust between the light from the window and the light coming from the monitor," advises Potter. "You also don't want it directly [behind] you because the light will wash out the monitor image, forcing you to squint and making your eyes work harder. I really try to discourage people from tilting the monitor down to avoid glare, which forces your head and neck into a very awkward position. You want to be sure the top of the monitor is aligned with your eyesight when you're sitting down at about an arm's length away from the screen."

Potter believes that eye muscles need to have exercise and change the same way arm and back muscles do. She suggests that heavy computer users take their eyes off the screen and look away at a great distance at least once an hour to allow their eye muscles to flex and relax.

Reflections from room lighting can also contribute to eyestrain. Potter's solution is "uplighting," that is, replacing standard ceiling-mounted lights with fixtures that focus light upwards. If this isn't possible, you can always purchase and install inexpensive light shields or hoods on your monitors.

Listening To Your Body

When it comes to ergonomics, having the right mindset is just as important as having the right office furniture, says Dora Potter. "You need to pay attention to what your body is telling you and not neglect your physical needs. Once your body begins to hurt, you aren't going to be able to work for normal amounts of time. You're going to have to take time to recover from the aches and pains. You end up having to take a day or two off from your normal schedule because you've overused and overextended your body, and that's not very efficient."

Potter suggests working no more than five hours at a stretch each day, and taking plenty of 10 minute breaks during the workday to stretch or walk around the office. "The more breaks you take during intense activity, the more you protect your body from stress and injury. I think people don't really understand that you can't just sit at PC for five to six hours at a stretch without getting up and moving around." Potter also suggests that you break up activities, like standing up while on the telephone, using a headset and walking around your office, or mouse-clicking with your nondominant hand.

Products and Resources

Check out these products to help you stock your office with ergonomically correct furniture and accessories:

  • The Obusforme Multi-position Chair ($650-$700) from Comfort House promotes good ergonomic posture with an adjustable back that conforms to the natural contours of your spine and a contoured seat that evenly distributes your body weight and minimizes pressure under your thighs to promote proper circulation. Available in a variety of configurations, the highback model also offers a removable/adjustable headrest. For more information, call (800) 359-7701 or visit
  • Constantly straining to reach objects on or around your desk? Keep everything within arms reach with the InterActive WrapAround Desk from Office Organix. Designed for intensive computer use, the WrapAround (the basic model costs $645) integrates a height- and tilt-adjustable keyboard tray into the workstation, which comes with two raised wing shelves perfect for printers or other peripherals. Constructed from maple laminate, pear laminate or cherry veneer, the Wrap Around is a modular system that can grow as your office does. Visit the Office Organix Web site for more information.
  • The MS102 Monitor Stand from the 3M Corp. is an inexpensive way to raise your monitor to a comfortable viewing height, It easily adjusts in increments of 1½-inches by adding or removing drawer sections. Stable and sturdily designed, the MS102 can handle monitors weighing up to 80 pounds, and provides desktop storage underneath the monitor. The price is $34.99, and additional drawers cost $12.99 each. Visit 3M's Web site for more information.
  • The Kinesis ergonomic keyboard can be adjusted to accommodate a wide range of user preferences, including keyboard length and lateral tilt position. Comfortably padded wrist supports and quiet tactile keys alleviate typing stress, while the board's narrow footprint leaves plenty of desktop space for a mouse or the Kinesis's optional numeric keypad. The keyboard costs $149 and is available from
  • Designed from the ground up for intensive mouse users, the Anir Vertical mouse from Animax International looks very much like a pilot's joystick. And just like a joystick, the Anir encourages a natural vertical hand position with the thumb pointing upwards, taking the strain off wrists and forearms. Users rest the back of their hand at the base of the mouse and use the thumb on the switch on the top of the stick for easy right and left clicks of the mouse button. The Anir is available for both PC and Mac systems, and requires no drivers or other programs to install. The two-button model costs $49.95, and the three-button model costs $69.90. Visit the Animax Web site for more information.

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