As freelancers and small business owners, our working environment, which is often dominated by technology, could be damaging our health says David Howell.
Think about yesterday when you finished work. Did you have pain in your neck, hands and forearms? If you did, this could be RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) or other MSDs (Musculoskeletal Disorders). As many in the freelance and small business community will work long hours with technology, often seated at a desk, these working environments could be damaging our health.
According to the HSE (Health & Safety Executive), 6.9 million working days were lost last year due to MSDs, with nearly half of these lost days thanks to upper limb disorders. The sedentary lifestyle that many of us have adopted when working with technology can be a major contributor to our general long-term health. Indeed, Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, famously said: “sitting is the new cancer.”
The use of sit/stand or adjustable height desks has been expanding for several years. Says Ashley JP Lockwood, Co-Founder of Deskmate: “I think we are at the beginning of a cultural shift in the UK, whereby workplace wellness and ergonomic working will become the norm, rather than be seen as a fad. We have historically followed suit from the US in terms of working practice, and given the ergonomic market maturing stateside, the signs are positive for all of us.”
Investing in an adjustable desk is a fast and effective way to change your working environment. Studies have shown altering your seating position regularly can have several health benefits, including lowering your risk of heart disease, lowering blood sugar levels and boosting productivity.
Paying attention to your workstation at home could ensure you avoid what could be debilitating injuries later. It’s all about paying attention to your body. If your lower back and neck begin to ache, that’s the time to stand. However, don’t stand for long periods either. Balance your standing and sitting time to find the optimal combination.
Creating a healthy working environment means paying attention to many key elements:
Your desk should be large enough so you can easily position your monitor, so it is straight in front of you. Corner desks that have the monitor positioned to the left or right are not ideal as they can cause neck strain.
A chair should be height adjustable and be able to fit comfortably under the desk. The chair height should be adjusted so that your forearms are horizontal with your elbows. Your feet should be squarely on the floor and not dangling from your chair. If after adjusting the chair for typing position, your feet won’t touch the floor, buy a footrest. Also, ensure that your lower back is properly supported when you sit upright in the chair.
If the monitor you are using isn’t height adjustable, now is the time to upgrade. Your eyes should be in line with the top of the monitor for the best viewing angle. The monitor should also be between 55cm-65cm away from your eyes so they can easily focus on its surface.
Don’t put anything between you and the keyboard unless this is a wrist rest you want to use. You should be able to reach the keyboard without stretching. Your arms should be at right angles to the keyboard.
Use a wireless mouse to give you the maximum versatility when positioning it. Try and keep the mouse close to the keyboard, so you don’t have to stretch to reach it. Your mouse should fit easily into your hand, with each button and track wheel easily reachable.
If you use printed documents a great deal, invest in a copyholder. This should be positioned at the same height and distance as your monitor. Try to avoid unnecessary movement of your neck and shoulders to see the copyholder.
Look closely at how your desk is positioned in relation to windows. You should try and eliminate glare by placing your desk at right angles to the windows. Electrical equipment dries the air, so try and introduce plants to keep the humidity at a comfortable level. Also, pay attention to the temperature and any draughts that your office space may have.
Safe and sound
Small changes to the technologies you are currently using could also ensure you stay fit. I have modified my Apple Magic Mouse with MagicGrips to make it much more ergonomic.
My mouse mat has a built-in wrist rest. This takes the strain off my wrist and supports it when I am using my mouse. Some people have moved to Apple’s Magic Trackpad as they find it easier to use than a traditional mouse, with others finding a trackball reduces finger and wrist strain.
The keyboard you use can also make a considerable difference when protecting your hands and wrist from undue and excessive strain. If you are not a touch typist, the ergonomic keyboard from Microsoft could be an option. Or one of the many keyboards you can see across the crowdfunding sites that offer a much more intuitive typing experience than a chiclet keyboard all Mac users will be familiar with.
The sit/stand desk as we have seen has been touted as the cure for the sitting disease, we all suffer from. I chose the Ikea Bekant desk from Ikea, as it fitted in the space my old desk occupied and it was economical to buy. Having read a number of conflicting stories about the actual benefits of a sit/stand desk, I decided the only way to know for sure was to test it myself.
It’s now been over a year since I started to use the adjustable desk. It takes some time to remember to stand, as I have had decades of sitting. I can report that I have fewer instances of neck and back pain since using the desk. With technologies like Deskmate and other products like this that can augment an existing static desk to one that is adjustable, means you can try out standing up without making a considerable investment.
Dinghy spoke with Sukhneet Assee, Associate Ergonomist for Humanscale who explained: “Ergonomics is a multi-disciplinary approach to achieving a good fit between any type of worker, the equipment they use, the task they do and the environment in which they work. It’s not specific to a product; it’s about our overall wellbeing.”
Sukhneet concluded: “Ideally, alternating between sitting and standing positions, try to sit for 45 minutes and then stand for 15 minutes. The additional benefit to this is that we can burn up to 340 calories per day by spending two hours standing. After one hour of sitting, 90% of our fat-burning enzymes stop working. Standing up means that you are more likely to move around, which is very important for blood circulation. You will feel more productive and healthier.”
Pay attention to how your body is reacting to the position and environment you are working within. Chronic fatigue in your hands, for instance, is no joke. Developing RSI can be debilitating.
But don’t think that ergonomics is just about your back. Yes, you may feel pain in your lower back and shoulders (a classic symptom of using a laptop PC in less than ideal conditions) but, think about your whole body. Taking a holistic approach will deliver long-lasting results and protect your long-term health.