I had been planning it for months. That Monday morning I was up early, dressed, and ready to make the ten-second commute down the hall to my home office to begin my first full day of self-employment. I was excited, caffeinated, and ready to work my assets off. And for the first few hours, it was glorious.
By the afternoon, though, my back was aching, my neck was stiff, and I had eaten an entire bag of chocolate-covered almonds. Not a promising start to entrepreneurship. Fortunately, I have a sister who is an occupational therapist, and when I mentioned my aches and pains she dropped by my office, assessed my workstation, then gave me some advice. Her first bit of advice was “Stop buying chocolate-covered almonds.” Then she got down to business pointing out several ways I could use ergonomics to optimize my workstation. I took her advice and experienced immediate relief. I’m sharing some of that advice with you today.
Ergonomics is an applied science that deals with improving efficiency and safety through product design and arrangement. Whether your daily word count goal is 50 or 5,000, incorporating ergonomic design into your workstation is a must. Utilizing ergonomics can help reduce injuries caused by repetitive movement and can help alleviate things like eyestrain, back pain, and headaches.
Despite chatter that says otherwise, optimizing your workstation doesn’t have to break the bank. In fact, a large component of ergonomic design involves improving how we sit, stand, and move through our workstations.
So how can writers use ergonomic design to help optimize their workstations? Here are a few suggestions.
You know the image we often see on TV of a writer tapping away at the keyboard of a laptop resting on her bed? That romanticized snapshot of a writer’s life might be popular, but I wouldn’t suggest working that way. Typing with your laptop on your lap or bed might be comfortable in the short term, but believe it or not, laptops aren’t ergonomically designed for prolonged use. The proximity of the monitor to the keyboard makes it impossible for your head and hands to be in the correct position at the same time. The result? Neck and back pain. Here are some solutions that might help reduce the likelihood of long-term injury:
- Utilize a separate monitor and keyboard.
- If you’re lifting or lowering your chin to view the screen, you’re causing neck fatigue. You’ll need to adjust your monitor to avoid future neck pain. Position the monitor so the top is near eye level, about an arm’s length away.
- If purchasing a separate monitor isn’t an option, DIY solutions work too. Propping your laptop on books, boxes, or an adjustable laptop stand and using it in conjunction with a separate keyboard can be great workarounds.
- Follow the 20-20-20 rule by taking a 20-second break from the screen every 20 minutes and looking at something 20 feet away. Optometrists also recommend using lubricating eye drops several times a day to prevent dryness.
- Reduce overhead lighting to eliminate screen glare.
- Increase text size for easier viewing.
- Use a document holder instead of resting reading materials flat on your desk.
Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) are caused by overusing the hands to perform repetitive tasks such as typing, using a mouse, and writing. These frequent repetitive movements can lead to pain and soreness on the top of the hands, around the wrists, and along the forearms and elbows.
- Consider purchasing a vertical mouse. The hand naturally wants to rest in a thumbs-up position. The standard mouse forces the user to rotate their forearm into a palm-down position. A vertical mouse prevents pronation by positioning the forearm in the anatomical rest position.
- Invest in an ergonomic keyboard. These contoured keyboards allow users to type with a lighter touch and help maintain proper vertical hand position.
- Use speech-to-text software to help reduce stress on hands and wrists.
If you do the bulk of your writing sitting behind a desk, a good chair is a must. Brands such as Herman Miller, Hon, and Steelcase are highly rated and range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars. When shopping for a chair, there are several important features to look for:
- The chair should be height adjustable.
- It should swivel, roll, and provide lumbar support.
- Armrests are optional depending on your preference, but elbows should be kept at 90 degrees, and wrists should be slightly extended while typing.
Once you’ve chosen a good chair, employ the following steps whenever you sit to ensure proper body mechanics:
- Maintain a 1-inch gap between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees.
- Position your knees at or below hip height.
- Rest your feet flat on the floor or use a footrest.
By doing research and finding a local closeout dealer, I was able to snag a $900 Steelcase chair similar to the one in the image on the right for under $300. Even better, I was able to test dozens of chairs in the showroom before buying.
Standing desks have surged in popularity over the past few years, and the benefits of spending more time standing have been well documented. Automatic standing desks can cost thousands of dollars, but smaller desktop models start in the hundreds. And a DIY standing desk can be as simple as using varied height boxes to arrange your laptop and monitor.
Correct monitor positioning and desk height are just as important with standing desks as they are with
- Standing desks should be positioned at elbow height.
- Screens should be between 20-28 inches from the face.
- Utilize an anti-fatigue mat to help reduce tiredness and lower back pain.
- Although sitting all day is bad for your health, standing all day shouldn’t be your goal. Studies indicate that 1:1 or 2:1 sitting versus standing time ratios can provide optimal comfort without disrupting productivity.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was the simplest and least expensive: get up. The pitfalls of sitting at a desk for prolonged periods are well documented. It can be tough for writers to interrupt their workflow to take breaks, but breaks are an essential part of our long-term health and well-being. Use the timer on your phone, an app, or even a kitchen timer to remind yourself to get away from the screen and walk or stretch at least once every hour.
I’m still building my workstation, but I’ve already taken several of the steps above. How about you? What tools and methods are you using to make sure your workstation works for you?
Note: Images do not constitute product endorsements. Main post image is not the author’s office. She wishes.