Interview With David Carroll – Workstation Ergonomics

David Carroll, our previous COO, current Bodycare NZ’s General Manager and the Victorian Chair of the Occupational Health Committee, was recently invited by the APA (Australian Physiotherapy Association) to share his knowledge and insights into ergonomic workstation set-up and assessment.

Ergonomics is a scientific discipline, which is concerned with improving the productivity, health, safety, and comfort of people. With many of us spending hours at our workstations every day, it is important that we adjust our workstation furniture and equipment to suit our individual needs. Bad habits and incorrect posture can lead to neck and back pain or sore wrists and fingers, while proper ergonomics can help us stay comfortable at work. Check out David’s interview below to learn more about workstation ergonomics from a clinical and expert’s point of view.

Q1. What is posture and why is it important?

Posture is defined as the position in which you hold your body upright against gravity while standing still or lying down. It derives from the Latin word ‘ponere’, which means to ‘put’ or ‘place’. Different postures are important for different activities, e.g. dancing, riding a horse and many others. In these activities, correct body positioning has been shown to be advantageous from a performance context.

Q2. For 18 months, millions of employees have been working from home, in many cases without a proper ergonomic set-up. What effect has this had on our posture?

There is no evidence available that shows a link between sitting posture at a desk, pain and general health. If you don’t have any pain, you are better off focusing on exercising regularly, getting good quality sleep and reducing your daily stress. If you had an episode of back pain, then yes, posture may affect it. In this incidence, you are better off avoiding prolonged sitting and consulting a health professional, such as a physiotherapist.

An anecdotal impact of working from home is that we are more sedentary and working longer hours. We are missing the incidental exercise of walking to work / the car, walking to the meeting room, etc. It is also harder to separate home and work life which can lead to longer workdays and less time for ourselves and our families. WFH can also impact our sense of connection because we are seeing fewer people. All of these factors can impact our Mental and Physical Health and Wellbeing.

Q3. How do we know if we have a “good” or “bad” posture?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a black and white answer, as different postures suit different people. 295 physiotherapists from four European countries were asked to pick a perfect posture from nine picture options ranging from slumped to upright. 85% of physiotherapists choose one of two postures, however, these were very different, one having less lumbar curve and the other having a more erect upper back. The researchers found that these postures would need higher levels of muscle activity which could result in greater tiredness and discomfort. The study concluded that disagreements remain on what is a good (or bad) sitting posture 1.

Common postures that are considered problematic are forward head posture and rounded shoulders which can be caused by sitting for prolonged periods or sitting without support (i.e. on the couch or in bed).

Posture can become a problem when it is sustained over a long period of time. To combat this, you should change your posture regularly and introduce stretching and movement breaks throughout your day. Tips include taking your phone calls standing up, introducing walking phone meetings, standing and stretching (with a Theraband) for 2 minutes, every 30 minutes etc.

Q4. What are the long-term effects of bad posture?

I don’t like the term ‘bad posture’ as any posture will cause discomfort if it is held for a prolonged period of time. There have been no studies that link ‘bad posture’ to any general health problems. The key is to change your posture regularly. This includes alternating between sitting and standing postures, limiting sitting or standing to 30 minutes, introducing regular stretching or movement breaks throughout your day.

Prolonged or sustained postures can lead to muscle soreness and stiffness and headaches.

Q5. Please provide your top tips for the best ergonomic set-up for posture (i.e. ergonomic chair, correct sitting position, desk height, the height of monitor, etc)?
  • Use an adjustable supportive chair with a high back rest and lumbar support.
    • Back rest slightly reclined to 10–20 degrees from vertical
    • Chair supporting the whole spine
  • Elevate your screen to eye height by placing your laptop on a box, using a wireless keyboard and mouse or alternatively, use a second screen and have your screen about arm’s length from you.
  • Adjust your chair/seat to make sure your elbows are just above the height of the desk.
  • Most importantly – change postures every 30-45 minutes.

More details:

Adjust chair height so your hips are at 90-120 degrees and thighs are parallel to the floor. If your feet aren’t firmly planted on the floor, a footrest may be required.

  • Shoulders and arms should remain in a relaxed position, with a 90-degree or greater bend at the elbow.
  • Forearm and wrists should remain in a neutral, relaxed position whilst working.
  • Monitor height should be adjusted so the top of the screen sits at eye level, and the monitor is approximately arm’s length away.
  • Sit all the way back into the chair and adjust the lumbar support to sit in the curve of your lower back.
  • Mouse, keyboard and all frequently used items should be within easy reach.
  • If using a laptop for extended periods (more than 2 hours), consider using a laptop raiser, separate keyboard and mouse for an optimal ergonomic set-up.
  • If using a standing desk, it should be adjusted to a height where your shoulders and arms are in a relaxed position at the keyboard, with a 90-degree or greater bend at the elbow.
Q6. If we’ve compromised our posture through unhealthy work from home/work from anywhere habits and/or an equipment/home office set-up that’s not ergonomic, what can we do to reverse the damage?

You probably haven’t compromised your posture, you may have just changed how you would normally sit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, if you want to make a change, now that you don’t have a long commute to the office, increasing your daily exercise is the key to living a prolonged life! The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that healthy adults should complete at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or at least 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity throughout the week. You should also do muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week. To help reduce the detrimental effects of high levels of sedentary  behaviour on health (e.g. long periods of sitting at your desk), all adults should aim to do more than the recommended level of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity.

Q7. When should you see an expert to help correct your posture (i.e. physiotherapist)?

If you’ve no pain with your posture you don’t need to worry about it. If you are experiencing pain, then you should consult a physiotherapist who can discuss your pain and history and provide a comprehensive plan to help you reduce your pain.

Q8. What are the benefits of an ergonomic assessment of your workstation?

They help educate you about what you can do to optimise your health at work and avoid pain and discomfort. The ergonomic assessment will ensure you have the most optimal set-up for you and will provide tips on what you can do to look after yourself (i.e. move regularly, change postures frequently). It will also assess your environment and the impact on your health e.g. lighting, glare, noise, etc.

Q9. How long can it take to correct “bad” posture?

Any posture will cause discomfort if you sustain it for long periods of time. Therefore, it is difficult to correct ‘bad’ posture as every posture would become ‘bad’ at some point. Unless you have pain, you don’t need to correct your posture. Focusing on trying to vary your posture throughout the day is more important.

Q10. What can we do to prevent slouching and improve our posture as we WFH today and into the future?

Use a supportive chair (get off the couch or out of bed) and remember to vary your position throughout the day, get some exercise and reduce your stress.

Q11. What are some exercises you can do at your desk and at home to improve your posture daily?

Try to move more. Vary your posture throughout your day. I recommend standing or going for a walk around the house while taking phone calls. Try not to spend your breaks sitting at your desk. You could try replacing your daily commute to/from the office with some exercise; bring the dog for a walk or go for a run when you would normally be sitting in traffic.

Remember the rule of ‘curve reversal’ – for example, if you’ve been leaning over your desk, stretch back the other way:

  • Perform stretching exercises daily to boost muscle flexibility
  • Exercise regularly to improve muscle strength and tone

 

References:

  1. O’Sullivan, K., O’Sullivan, P., O’Sullivan, L., Dankaerts, W. (2012). What does physiotherapists consider to be the best sitting spinal posture. Manual Therapy, 17 (5), 432-7.