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Impact of desk job on health and how to create a good workspace

Table of Contents

Can a desk job ruin my health?

Yes. The main reasons are lack of physical activity and a poorly organized workplace. Sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and is one of the main reasons for obesity and premature death in people over 40.

Poor workplace ergonomics is just as bad. Keeping the same position for too long restricts blood circulation and you start feeling sleepy, tired, lose concentration, and cannot get things done. It also causes back, neck and shoulder pain, stiffness in wrists and fingers, headaches, and vision problems.

To avoid negative effects, make sure you:

  • sit up straight
  • keep your head and neck in a neutral position
  • keep your wrists neutral when typing
  • keep both feet flat on the floor
  • have enough light in the room

Scientists from the University of New Hampshire proved that proper workplace ergonomics has a lot of health benefits. Another study showed that ergonomic desks and chairs combined with good posture improve overall health, productivity, and concentration.

Office chairs and desks

They need to be fully adjustable to your body’s dimensions. Adjustable chairs prevent back strain, while desks and armrests of the right height ensure proper shoulder position.

A good sitting desk is:

  • 20 to 28 inches high and has enough legroom with a 15-inch clearance between your knees and desktop. You should be able to sit at the desk with your arms fully relaxed. If the height is right you won’t have to slouch or lift your shoulders
  • 27 to 30 inches wide, or wide enough for you not to be able to reach the other side easily when sitting in front of it. If you use a keyboard tray, your elbows should rest at a 90-degree angle

A good standing desk is:

  • is at your waist level
  • allows your elbows to rest at a 90-degree angle
  • allows you to keep your feet flat on the floor with your back straight and knees bent at a 90-degree angle

A good office chair:

The backrest

  • can be adjusted both in height and angle by 20-30 degrees to support the natural curve of the spine and prevent backaches
  • has a synchronized seat control mechanism so that both the backrest and the seat adjust to your position
  • is made of breathable fabric, preferably microfiber or cotton. A net backrest is also a good option, as it reduces sweating

The seat

  • can slide forward and back by 2-3 inches to ensure proper thigh position
  • is adjustable in height to keep your feet flat on the floor and your knees at a 90-degree angle to ensure your leg muscles are relaxed.
  • does not go beyond the front casters to ensure you don’t have to lean forward to keep balance.

The armrests

  • are adjustable in height
  • are at the same level as the desktop and keyboard to ensure your shoulders are relaxed.
  • allow you to sit close enough to the keyboard
  • allow enough space in between for you to sit down, stand up and turn freely, but not too wide apart

The casters

  • keep the chair stable. 5 is the perfect number
  • are fit for the flooring. Choose polyurethane, aluminum, or rubber casters for hardwood floors and larger plastic ones for carpets

What if I have a different chair?

  • Use a pillow to support the natural curve of the spine

My workplace is comfortable enough

Probably check your posture. Here are some basic rules:

  • Move your head back so that your neck and back form a straight line and lean back by about 7-10 inches.
  • Change positions. Try sitting up straight and keep a 90-degree angle between your legs and body for a few minutes, then lean back again.
  • Do not tilt your head in either direction when working on a computer or laptop. It restricts the blood flow in the neck area and makes you tired.
  • Use a headset to talk on the phone. That way your hands will still be free for typing and you won’t have to balance the phone on your shoulder.

For legs and thighs:

  • Keep a 3 to 5 inch clearance between the back of your knees and the front of the seat to ensure you do not slide forward or back too much.
  • Keep your thighs parallel to the floor and knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • The seat needs to be at the same level as the lower part of your kneecap when you stand up.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor parallel, to each other. Crossing your legs causes your blood pressure to increase and leads to thrombosis, especially if you normally have high blood pressure.

For shoulders and arms:

  • You should be able to put your arms on armrests at 90-degrees without elevating your shoulders.

Computer or a laptop set up

Pay attention to the height. A screen placed too high or too low forces a forward head posture and leads to headaches, neck spasms, and shoulder strain. To avoid it:

  • Set up the screen 15-20 inches from your eyes.
  • Have your eyes in line with the top of the screen rather the center.
  • If the screen is too low, put a stack of books under.
  • Tilt the screen in a way that it falls in line with the middle of the keyboard.
  • If you have two screens, tilt the other one slightly forward and move your eyes, not your head, when switching between them.

What if I work on my laptop?

The same rules apply here.

  • Put a stack of books underneath to prevent your head from moving forward
  • Have your eyes in line with the top of the screen.
  • Use a separate keyboard and mouse. Using a touch pad causes your wrists to tilt at weird angles and leads to strain.

What about the mouse and keyboard?

Positioning your mouse and keyboard in the wrong way causes wrist pain.

To avoid it:

  • Place the keyboard in front of the screen or on the keyboard tray. Adjust the height so that your wrists are in a neutral position and your shoulders are relaxed.
  • Make sure you do not tilt your wrists. Keep them 2-3 inches from the edge of the table.
  • Place the mouse next to the keyboard at either side, but not too far. Make sure your wrist is in a neutral position when using it.
  • Choose flat keyboards to minimize wrist strain.
  • Keep your keyboard sloped away at a slightly below-elbow height.

Looking at a screen for a long time

Natural light will do the trick. Office lighting affects our mood and wellbeing. Bad lighting is known to cause eye strain, headaches, and fatigue.

Research that dates back to as early as 1979 shows that exposure to natural light lowers stress, improving mood and concentration. And in 2014 scientists from the Northwestern University proved that it also improves sleep and overall quality of life. Natural light increases serotonin levels, which leaves you feeling happy, calm, and focused.

So, if possible, choose an office with larger windows that get a lot of sunshine. Or at least make the most out of what you have:

  • Do not set up your desk facing the window. Both daylight and the screen are a big strain on your eyes.
  • Sitting with your back to the window is also not a great option. The sun causes screen glare so you have to strain your eyes more.
  • If you are right-handed, sit with your left side to the window and vise-versa if you are left-handed. That way the sunlight will fall evenly over the screen without glare.
  • If your desk is far from the window, you need a daylight desk lamp. It should be a couple of inches below your eye level with the light directed at the desk in front of you to avoid screen glare.

Work with music or silence

Depends on your preferences and what you are working on. Several studies have linked listening to music with increased productivity and overall wellbeing.

Listening to music at work can help you:

  • Lower stress
    If you are often stressed throughout the day, play some calming music. Studies have shown that slower and sad music has a relaxing effect while upbeat music improves mood.
  • Improve concentration
    Research by the University of Birmingham has shown that listening to music increases concentration when doing routine work like compiling reports or categorizing documents. The more familiar the songs are, the better: you won’t waste energy trying to listen to the lyrics.
  • Increase productivity
    When you are working on tasks that require concentration, opt for instrumental or classical music because lyrics might distract you. For example, Baroque classical music proved to increase productivity.
  • Boost cognitive abilities
    Listening to music at work helps tackle more complicated tasks, boosting creativity and cognitive performance. That is why many musicians are great multitaskers and can play several instruments.

In other words, feel free to turn on some music while working. Just make sure you choose the right kind to help you boost performance, increase concentration and work more efficiently.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety recommends combining daylight ceiling light and desk lamps to lower strain on the eyes. Ceiling lamps light up large areas but should not be too bright to ensure you can still see the screen well.

When it is dark outside, turn on the desk lamp as well to avoid the contrast between a brighter screen and a darker room. If you do not have a desk lamp, turn on night shift on your computer and the screen will start emitting a gentler, warmer light.

Experts also recommend metal-halide bulbs, which are 80% identical to the natural light. Blue-enriched light bulbs have been proven to increase concentration and are great for office spaces. Warmer tones, on the other hand, help to relax and rest so they are a better fit for break rooms.

Mess on the workspace can affect wellbeing and productivity?

Yes. A research by the University of Minnesota proved that a clean and organized workplace motivates people to do what is expected of them in other areas as well: eat healthier, work out regularly, and give to charity. When asked if they were willing to donate money, 82% of the participants who completed the questionnaire in a cleanroom said yes, while only 47% of those who did it in an unkempt room agreed to do so.

On the other hand, a cluttered desk has been connected to thinking more creatively and generating more new ideas.

If you decided to declutter your desk, here is how you do it:

  • Clean it off completely.
  • Go through all the things and throw out those you do not need.
  • Put the things you use regularly where you can easily reach them without getting up.
  • Put the things you use once a month or less away on shelves and in desk compartments.
  • Do not keep more than 3 personal items on your desk to avoid getting distracted
  • Put the cables and other equipment underneath the table and keep them together with a clip or tape.

Matt Perman recommends in his book How to Set Up Your Desk to first put all the things that require your attention on the left side of the desk. Once you are done, move them to the right side. That way you’ll always be able to see what you need to get done and keep your desk clean.

How to prevent fatigue?

Take breaks and change your position every 30 minutes or do a little warm-up routine:

  • Stand against the wall for a couple of minutes to improve posture and blood circulation. If there is more than a 2-inch clearance between your neck and the wall, consult a physician to rule out spinal curvature.
  • Switch from sitting to a standing position every hour. Start with 5 minutes and work your way up to 50.
  • Do a 10-minute warm-up routine just to keep your blood flowing, get more oxygen to muscles, and lower stress levels.
  • Do wrist exercises to prevent strain and ease the pain.
  • Stretch your back during the day to improve circulation, feel more alert, and relieve headaches.
  • Do these three exercises twice a day to maintain good posture and stretch at the office.

When working on a computer you need to relax your eyes. Do these exercises every 20 minutes to improve blood circulation and relax eye muscles:

  • Look left, right up, and down without moving your head. Repeat 10 times.
  • Draw a figure eight with your eyes first horizontally, then vertically. Repeat 5 times.
  • Focus on a nearby object that is 10-15 inches away. Then look at something distant, focusing your eyes on what you see for 15 seconds. Then look at the nearby object again. Repeat 10 times.
  • Blink quickly then shut your eyes tightly. Keep them shut for 2-3 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
  • Massage the eye area. Gently touch your eyelids, and massage your eyes, the bridge of the nose, and neck with circular movements for 5 minutes.
  • Try palming. Close your eyes, place your palms over your eyes, and cross your fingers. Relax and hold this position for 1-3 minutes.

Checklist for a good workspace?

Sure. The main rules are:

Keep your posture:

  • Feet flat on the floor
  • Knees bent at a 90-degree angle
  • A 2-3-inch (5-7 cm) clearance between the back of your knees and the chair
  • Thighs parallel to the floor
  • Head is aligned with your back
  • The backrest supports the lower back
  • Elbows rest on armrests at 90-degrees without shoulders elevating
  • Wrists rest on the desk or keyboard without tilting
  • Eyes in line with the top of the screen

Create the right office environment:

  • A ceiling light during the day and a desk lamp at night
  • Blue tinted light for your desk lamp
  • Instrumental music with no lyrics or familiar music for routine work
  • No music for creativity and concentration
  • A clean desk; clean off every night before going home

Take breaks every 30 minutes:

  • Change position
  • Spend 5-10 minutes away from the screen
  • Stretch your back, wrists and do a basic warm-up routine
  • Relax your eyes and massage your face

Remember the figures:

  • A desk is 25-30 inches high (usually at mid-thigh level) or 65-70 cm
  • A desk is 30-35 inches wide (you should not be able to reach the other side when sitting at the desk) or 70-80 cm
  • The back of the chair is adjustable in height and angle
  • A chair seat slides forward and backward by 2-3 inches (5-7 cm)
  • A 15-20-inch or 40-50 cm clearance between your face and the screen

Welltory Team, 23 Dec. 2021

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