The Ultimate Guide to Office Ergonomics

Ergonomics Furniture

What is office ergonomics? Why is it important? What can you do about it?

What is ergonomics?  Why is it important?  Which ergonomic accessories are worth buying?  

In this article, we are going to answer common questions about office ergonomics, ergonomic accessories, ergonomic hazards and ergonomic assessments.  Since the page is quite lengthy to read in full, feel free to use the table of contents below to jump to the sections that interest you or download it as a pdf guide to read later.

Table of Contents

What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics is quite simply the study of how people and their tools interact.  By examining how people use their tools, we can design tools that enhance the user’s performance.  Studying what effects those tools have on the user’s body allows for the design of work tools that minimize adverse impacts such as the risk of injury or development of chronic ailments.
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Why is Ergonomics Important in the Office?

Office workers spend as much as one-third of every day seated at their desk.  If that workstation isn’t designed ergonomically, there is a significant risk of developing a chronic injury such as neck or back pain, carpal tunnel, and joint pain. 

This is without even mentioning the potential negative health effects of remaining stationary for prolonged periods through the day.

When people are uncomfortable or in pain, they aren’t productive, and they are more likely to take sick or injury leave.  Sadly, almost 80 percent of people experience back pain at some point during their career.   That is an awful lot of people who are not able to work at their full potential.

Poorly designed or improperly configured chairs, computer monitors positioned at the incorrect height and keyboards placed up too high on desktops and worksurfaces plague offices everywhere.  Fortunately, there is a cure for this epidemic; ergonomically designed furniture and accessories.

Ergonomic programs can increase productivity by 25%
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How Does Office Ergonomics Create Value?

Office ergonomics initiatives create value for an organization in multiple ways.  A healthy, comfortable employee is happier, more engaged and more productive than someone who is distracted by a poorly designed workstation or plagued by chronic pain. 

For example, a study of ergonomic interventions at Blue Cross-Blue Shield and State Farm Insurance attributed overall productivity improvements of 4.4 and 15 percent to the ergonomic interventions performed.

A Willis Towers Watson study conducted in 2015 even asserts the most significant driver of employee engagement is providing employees with a sense that their supervisors care for their well-being. Ergonomic upgrades to team members’ workstations can be an excellent method of demonstrating that the organization cares about the health of its people.

There are also clear benefits for employees whose roles require them to make focused, attentive decisions.  For example, a study by BLR found that for one company, implementing a single $400 device reduced annual scrap costs by $6000. 

Ergonomic Initiatives Start with Culture and Education

For any ergonomic initiative to be successful, it needs to be backed by an organizational culture that values the health, wellness, and effectiveness of employees.  Most top-down ergonomics initiatives fail to inspire employees to maintain appropriate postures and work habits long-term.

By instituting a culture of education and creating an environment where team members feel empowered to bring up the ergonomic issues that concern them, you can foster buy-in and fully reap the benefits of any ergonomic upgrades.

High-Value, Low-Cost Ergonomic Upgrades

You don’t need to completely renovate your office to begin realizing the value from office ergonomics.  Here are a couple quick, easy and cost-effective ergonomic upgrades you can get started with today:

      1. Provide every workstation with an adjustable monitor arm and keyboard tray. ($100-$400 per workstation)
      2. Add a task/desk lamp to any workstations where paper documents are used ($100-$250 per task lamp)
      3. Retrofit the workstations of team members with existing ergonomic health concerns by adding a Sit-to-Stand accessory. ($600-$1000 per workstation)
      4. Upgrade worn out task chairs or any without an adjustable arm and lumbar supports. ($350-$800 per chair).

Man suffering from ergonomic back pain
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The 3 Most Common Ergonomic Hazards in Every Office

There are many upsides to working in an office environment (i.e. Heating and A/C), but if your workspace isn’t correctly designed, office life can come with unique challenges and hazards.  Here are a few of the most critical ergonomic hazards of which you should be aware.

      1. Inefficient device placement
      2. Lack of movement
      3. Poorly configured or worn-out chairs

Inefficient Device Placement

Slouching in your seat or leaning forward when using your computer is one of the most common, and easily prevented, causes of ergonomic discomfort in the office. 

A poorly laid out workstation encourages poor posture.  Your keyboard, monitor and mouse placement all need to be aligned so that you can sit in a neutral posture while typing away at your desk. 

Monitors should be situated at approximately arm’s length from your body, with the first line of text displayed at eye level.  Your keyboard and mouse should be configured to allow your hands to rest in your lap while using your computer.

Lack of Movement

Office workers spend an average of seven hours per day seated at their desk, but our bodies aren’t designed to be stationary for such prolonged periods of time. 

Breaking up prolonged periods of sitting with stationary stretching sessions or a quick walk to the water cooler can provide a much-needed break for your lower back and keep your metabolism chugging away at a healthy rate.

Even the act of alternating between sitting and standing postures while working at your desk can have a noticeable impact on your ergonomic comfort throughout the workday. 

Poorly Configured or Worn Out Chairs

As we just established, most office workers spend the majority of their day sitting at a desk.  When so much of your time is spent tied to a single piece of furniture (your chair), that furniture had better be comfortable!

A chair that isn’t providing the right support in the right place can lead to a variety of musculoskeletal injuries and chronic pain.  Your task chair should:

      • Provide both lumbar and upper back support.
      • Have adjustable armrests that allow you to rest your elbows gently at a roughly 90-degree angle.
      • Offer plenty of cushioning in the seat pan, protecting your lower spine and ensuring proper blood flow through your thighs.

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When people sit well, they feel well; when they feel well, they work well.  If you aren’t 100 percent convinced your chair is providing the support it should, compare your chair to this list of indicators you may need a new chair.

      1. Loose, damaged or non-working components.
      2. Flattened or compressed seat cushion.
      3. Improperly fit for your body size and shape.
      4. It just isn’t comfortable.

You spend a significant portion of your life sitting in your task chair, don’t suffer through an uncomfortable chair.

A properly configured ergonomic workstation

An Ergonomically Configured Workstation

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Are Ergonomic Accessories Worth the Investment?

Ergonomic accessories are almost always worth the investment.  From our experience, the ROI of an ergonomic intervention is almost always determined by how well end users adopt the intervention.

This is particularly apparent when considering ergonomic accessories since there are so many inexpensive options which can still significantly improve the ergonomic health of the end user.

In a purely financial sense, ergonomic accessories almost always deliver productivity gains and absenteeism rate decreases that far outweigh the initial cash investment.  The true indicator of a successful ergonomic intervention is rarely if the products provided sufficient value, it’s whether end users adopted the accessory or intervention.

If you are planning an ergonomic upgrade or addition, take a step back from the dollars and cents calculations for a moment and consider whether your team will buy into the behaviours and habits encouraged by the new furniture or accessory.

Take the time to help your team fully understand what these tools can do and why they should use them.  You will thank yourself later.

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What Ergonomic Tools or Accessories Should I Have?

There has been an explosion of new ergonomic furniture designs, tool and accessories flood into the market in recent years, but there are a few staples that every office should consider. 

In the following section, we will break down the six ergonomic tools that can most improve the health and productivity of your team.

 Ergonomic Task Seating

Woman sitting on a Haworth Fern Chair and working at height adjustable table

Haworth Fern Task Chair

We mentioned earlier that the average white-collar office worker spends seven hours of their day sitting at a desk.  That’s close to 1700 hours per year sitting in your task chair.  You had better enjoy that chair!

Aside from the bed, you sleep in; there is no other single piece of furniture with which you will spend more time in physical contact. 

Since we spend such a significant portion of our day, and our lives, sitting on our task chairs it’s imperative that those chairs are helping, not harming our bodies.  A properly designed and configured ergonomic task chair can be the difference a life plagued by nagging chronic back pain and life without.

When buying a new ergonomic task chair, you should ensure it has the following features at a minimum:

      • Adjustable armrests
      • Seat height appropriate for your body shape and workstation height
      • Lumbar support
      • A comfortable seat

There are many more features that task chairs can come loaded with these days, but those are a few of the most important.  Ultimately, what is most comfortable for one person, may not be for another, so we always recommend you test out a few chairs yourself when shopping for a new task chair.

As equally as important as choosing the right chair, is appropriately configuring your task chair.  Of particular importance is adjusting the seat and backrest to allow you to lean all the way back into the chair. 

The armrests should also be at a height and position to gently support your arms as you type, and the chair should be adjusted in height until there is minimal pressure on your thighs when your feet are flat on the ground.

Sit to Stand Desks, Tables & Accessories

Significant research has been done over the past years on the adverse health effects caused by sitting for extended periods of time.  Chronic neck and back pain heightened risks of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, difficulty focusing and general discomfort.  The list of negative outcomes derived from prolonged sitting seems endless.

Fortunately, even small bursts of activity throughout the day can significantly offset many of these negative outcomes.  It’s recommended to alternate between sitting and standing at least every 30 minutes.

At first glance, that may seem unproductive, but with the right Sit to Stand desk, table or accessory, it doesn’t need to be disruptive at all.  The right tool will allow you to quickly alternate postures without interrupting your workflow.

The bottom line of why you should buy a sit to stand desk or accessory is this: people who regularly use sit to stand work tools report feeling more energized, healthier and productive.

So what’s the difference between a Sit to Stand desk, table and accessory?

Sit to Stand Tables

Woman using a Humanscale Float Height Adjustable Table

Humanscale Height Adjustable Table

A Sit to Stand table is merely any table where the entire work surface can be raised and lowered at will, and without disrupting your work.  The table may be powered by a crank, pneumatic mechanism or an electric motor.  These have traditionally been the most widespread Sit to Stand solution.

Sit to Stand Desks

Two women working at a Haworth Masters Series Height Adjustable Desk

Haworth Masters Series Height Adjustable Desk

Height adjustable, or Sit/Stand desks, are essentially just a Sit to Stand table that is built into a desk or workstation rather than be self-supporting like a table.  It can sometimes be more expensive to incorporate height adjustability into a workstation or desk than purchasing an adjustable height table, but it has the added benefit of seamlessly integrating into the rest of the workstation or desk configuration.

Sit to Stand Accessories

Man using a Humanscale Quickstand to work while standing

Humanscale Quickstand

Retrofittable height adjustability accessories such as the Quickstand have taken the market by storm in recent years.  The primary benefit of a Sit to Stand Accessory is that it can be added to an existing desk or workstation, enabling the user to easily alternate between sitting and standing, without the expensive process of replacing entire worksurfaces.  While they offer limited work surface space on their own, they can be an excellent addition for individuals who spend most of their time at a computer without needing to reference paper documents.

Adjustable Monitor Arms

Humanscale M2 Monitor Arm on a white desk with green decor and walls

Humanscale M2 Monitor Arm

The human head weighs approximately ten pounds, but for every inch forward you hold your head, the weight your neck has to support increases by another ten pounds!  It’s no wonder that just a small period of hunching over a laptop or leaning in to read your computer monitor can give you such a stiff neck and shoulders.

Poor posture causes stress on neck and can lead to ergonomic injuries like kyphosis

When you consider the results of a recent Microsoft study indicating that the average office-based employee spends seven hours per day using a computer, it’s clear that a work day stooped over your computer can put tremendous strain on your neck.

An adjustable monitor arm will allow you to position your monitor at the right height (top line of text just above eye level), correct depth (approximately one arm length away), and optimal orientation (the screen centred in front of your eyes but slightly titled away).

Even laptop users should consider an adjustable monitor arm.  Laptop screens are generally smaller than a regular computer monitor and are quite difficult to position in a manner that does not encourage leaning over the laptop.

If you don’t want to buy an additional monitor and monitor arm for your laptop, there are laptop holders which will help to raise the height of your built-in laptop screen to a more comfortable height.  Many adjustable monitor arms can also be equipped with accessories that facilitate lifting your laptop up to a more ergonomically correct position.

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Ergonomic Keyboard Trays

Workrite Adjustable Keyboard Tray

Workrite Adjustable Keyboard Tray

One of the most inexpensive ergonomic additions you can make to a workstation can also deliver immediate relief to people suffering from wrist or shoulder pain.  There are practically no situations where using an adjustable keyboard tray is not recommended

Poor hand positioning while typing is one of the most common causes of carpal tunnel syndrome, but it’s also one of the simplest to avoid.

When typing on a keyboard or scrolling with your mouse, your hands should be resting in a neutral position that is gently supported by the keyboard tray.  By positioning the keyboard tray so that your hands are resting just above your lap, you can minimize the amount of strain on your joints and pressure on your wrist. 

Now ask yourself, does your desk or worksurface sit at a height that is just about in your lap?  Unlikely, and even if it did, how difficult would it then be to read or write on paper documents from such a lowered height?

Adding an adjustable keyboard tray to a workstation allows each user adjust their keyboard and mouse height to reflect their body size, posture and work habits, eliminating the need to match users to preconfigured desks or make expensive alterations to workstations after they have been installed. 

Keyboard trays provide more bang for their buck than almost any other ergonomic accessory or tool you can buy and we recommend them to all our customers.

Task Lighting

Haworth Pixo Lamp on Haworth Reside Workstations

Haworth Pixo Task Light

We spend most of our day staring at brightly lit screens and sitting under the glare of artificial overhead lighting; is it any wonder eye strain is one of the most common causes of headaches at work?

We aren’t going to spend too much time on the science behind why task lights are so beneficial, but ultimately it boils down to the fact that your eyes require different light levels for various tasks.  Seems obvious enough right?

When reading from a backlit screen, our eyes don’t require very much background light, and too much light can even cause a glare on the screen.  On the other hand, our eyes need significantly more light when working on tasks such as reading or writing on paper documents. 

A task light allows you to put light where you need it, ensuring your eyes receive the right amount of light no matter what task on which you might be working. 

Inexpensive and effective at reducing eye strain, task lights are an excellent tool for anyone who regularly works with paper documents.

Ergonomic Footrests

Humanscale Ergonomic Footrest

Humanscale Ergonomic Footrest

Ergonomic footrests primary serves two purposes: 1) assist individuals whose work surfaces are too high to sit ergonomically, and 2) reduce the negative impact of sitting on blood circulation in the user’s legs.

To sit ergonomically, when you rest your feet flat on the ground, your knees should be at approximately a 90-degree angle, and your chair should place minimal pressure on your thighs.  If your work surface or chair is too high to allow your feet to rest flat on the floor, it can lead to poor posture and a host of ergonomic problems.

By adding an ergonomic footrest, you can compensate for this height difference and keep your body in the optimal posture all day at work, minimizing stress on your joints and improving blood flow.

If the seat cushion on your chair puts pressure on your thighs, it can gradually reduce circulation throughout your legs leading to stiffness or pain, cramping and contribute to the development of more serious health concerns such as blood clots and varicose veins.

An ergonomic footrest is the least commonly seen ergonomic accessory in most offices, and for some individuals, may be unnecessary.  However, for those who may have issues with circulation or improper worksurface/chair height, an ergonomic footrest can provide a significant benefit.

Woman using an Ergotron Sit/Stand Accessory
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What is an Ergonomic Assessment?

A professional ergonomic assessment is when a Certified Professional Ergonomist evaluates the work environment and behaviours of an organization or individuals to identify areas of risk and opportunities for improvement.

Other professionals experienced in the field of ergonomic injuries or workstation design such as occupational therapists, workspace planners and many manufacturers own sales representatives can also offer excellent help spotting ergonomic deficiencies but won’t be able to provide a certified assessment.

The assessor will evaluate the workstation and work environment for anything that could be promoting poor posture or causing unnecessary stress on users’ bodies.  This could include everything from examining a user’s chair configuration to the lighting level available in the office and specifically at a user’s workstation.

After the assessor has finished, they will provide a report on their findings and recommended corrective steps.  These corrective actions may or may not be binding, depending on why you conducted the assessment.  In either case, it is in your best interest to implement the findings.

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Do I Need an Ergonomic Assessment?

There is no single answer to whether your organization needs a comprehensive ergonomic assessment, but there are many reasons why you may want to have an ergonomic assessment done in your office.

No one does their best work when they are unhappy or in pain.  If you have one or more team member suffering from consistent pain or discomfort an ergonomic assessment may be able to identify what is causing the discomfort an offer a solution, avoiding potential sick days, workplace injury claims and showing your team that you care about their well being.

If someone on your team has already missed time due to an ergonomic injury, consider this it massive red flag.  Not only will an ergonomic assessment of their workspace help to prevent reinjury, expanding the evaluation to the rest of your team could help prevent someone else from undergoing the same type of issue. 

Ergonomic assessments can also be incorporated into a larger workplace wellness campaign.  Allowing your team to access these resources is a great building block towards creating a company culture focused on providing a healthy, happy and productive work environment.

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Eliminate Repetitive Strain Injuries With An Ergonomic Assessment