Ergo – what? Avoiding the Aches and Pains in your Workspace

By Sonya Barnes   4/11 /2020

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With many of us  working from home to maintain an income, you may have noticed having more aches and pains than you normally have—especially people who are used to standing and moving around quite a bit, like teachers.  There are several factors that could contribute to this, and it’s not all stress related!  If you are sitting for an hour or more at a time and not using a proper desk or chair designed for sitting and working, you may have noticed back and neck aches, headaches, or trouble sleeping.  But you don’t have to deal with that!

Do you remember those typing classes you may have taken in middle school or high school that made you sit up straight, look straight at the screen, keeping your feet flat on the floor and your wrists off of the table?  That was ergonomics. Once our teacher graded us on it, many of us brain dumped that lesson and never thought about it again.  It took me getting carpal tunnel and tendonitis from hours of daily typing in a job, sending me into a brace for eight weeks and twelve weeks of physical therapy to relearn that lesson. 

In the corporate world, there is an ergonomics representative that trains people and checks for this annually, as well as making sure that desks and chairs as well as computer heights follow the guidelines.  But, when I transitioned into education, I never once heard or saw someone talk about it, unless they were the typing teacher.  As educators, we spend most of our time standing and pacing that little thought is given to how we sit.  In fact, if we are lucky, we may sit for a planning period or a training day, but not as a regular part of our day.  Now that so many are working on a computer, let’s go over the three areas to look at for your physical health.  Since I am a teacher, let’s use the acronym SPA to make it fun and easy to remember—Stretching, Posture, and Apparatus.

First, let’s talk about STRETCHING.  Starting and ending your workday with a few minutes of stretching will prepare your muscles for the work you are going to do and save you from injury or aggravation.  You can use simple basic stretches, engage in yoga, or a combination, depending on what aches and pains you may already have had.  You can find videos and tutorials all over the internet for these or take advantage of online yoga instructions for personalized guidance.  Just start at the top and work your way down.  The basics are neck stretches, shoulder rolls, arm circles, shoulder, chest and arm stretches, forearm stretches and flexes, lower back stretches, lateral trunk stretches, quadricep and hamstring stretches, calf and ankle stretches.  If you type or mouse a lot, I also recommend hand and wrist stretches and flexes.  I would recommend doing this both at the beginning and end of your day, possibly even midday, just depending on how long you are working and if you are feeling stiff and achy.

Next, let’s discuss your POSTURE while working on a computer, starting at the top down.  Your eyes should be on the screen, and the screen should be centered at eye level.  If you are using a laptop only, this won’t be as easy to do, so just make sure you aren’t straining your neck too far up or down.  Next, your back should be straight with your shoulders rolled back, but relaxed and not pulled up or forward—the best way to do this is to not put your back against the back rest and sit a little forward on the seat.  As for your wrists, they should be straight, floating above the edge of your keyboard or table surface and not resting on the surface.  Finally, your feet should be flat on the ground beneath you.  Pairing the correct posture with frequent breaks—every 20-30 minutes to stretch, walk around, and look away from the computer—is a best practice to avoid strain and stress on your body.

Finally, let’s discuss APPARATUS that can help take the strain off a long workday.  Since this is temporary for many, I will talk about alternatives with things that are around the home and won’t cost you a dime and put a bit more detail into this section!  For your work set up, you should have a well-lit room or a task lamp–the more natural light the better–to avoid eye strain.  Next, for proper monitor height, if you have a second monitor or keyboard, that can be most helpful in adjusting to the proper visual height, or even taking advantage of modern TV’s with USB hookups, can be helpful. Just be aware that TV’s give off a lot more blue light than a monitor will and can result in more headaches, a lesson I learned the hard way!  Next, a standing desk can be a great way to keep from those aches and pains of sitting too long.  Amazon and IKEA have some great options if you are looking to invest in a more long-term workspace—to include adjustable desks for both sitting and standing. The price usually starts at $100 and goes up. Next is a proper chair with back support and appropriate height. I found that a gaming chair is best for this since they are made for long term sitting.  Amazon or your local office supply store usually carries them, and they often have sales.  I also invested in a core balance disc (under $15 on Amazon) to help with core muscles and stretching and can even place behind my back to offer better posture support.  An alternative to a desk and chair is to opt for a standing workspace set up and you can add a box or a shelf made from leftover wood scraps you have around, or a countertop is a great option—just be prepared to clear out when it needs to be used for mealtime.  I also recommend a step of sorts to prop feet on and take the strain off your hips and lower back, especially if your legs don’t easily reach the ground like mine.  I purchased two monitor stands and used one for a footrest, or you can buy a true ergonomic footrest.  The free alternative would be to get a shoebox to rest your feet on.  If you are using a phone frequently, be sure to use the handsfree options whenever you can—either a headset or speakerphone setting, to avoid the aches of holding the phone all day.

Partnering these strategies, along with proper water intake, nutrition and exercise can help eliminate a great deal of the aches that come from working on a computer all day.  Especially when we are not in an ideal situation for those routine massages and chiropractor trips. 

I hope these tips help you find a healthier way to work, whether it be for long term or short term.  Taking many of these practices back into your classroom or office could be to your advantage!

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