Improving Workstation Ergonomics – Which Improvements are Worth the Investment?

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We can find a wealth of information out there on how to set up a more ergonomic workstation, and if we had unlimited time and money, we could test out every suggestion we come across. If you are like me, however, you are very limited on time, and prefer to invest your money wisely. This brings us to the question of which of the many improvements we can make to our workstations are worth investing our limited resources, time and money?

Like many decisions we must make, the individual and particular situation involved will impact the decision made. For this reason, we will not focus on which improvements are worth our time and money, and will instead focus on how much time and money we would expect to need to invest for each improvement and how much positive impact on our health and wellness we expect it to have. I will not include a list of specific products and prices currently available on the market as these are constantly changing and may not be accurate by the time I have finished writing this paragraph. We will focus on whether each improvement requires a low, medium, or high amount of time to implement, low, medium, or high financial investment, and low, medium, or high expected health benefit.

We will discuss each option to improve workstation ergonomics separately. If you are not certain which option or options are right for you, and you have some time for trying a few, it may be best to start with the simplest and lowest investment options and work toward more time consuming and/or costly options from there.

Frequent movement and breaks

The simple and very cost effective option of taking breaks from the workstation you are currently using is also the most highly recommended. The time commitment is dependent on the length and frequency of your breaks and can take little to no time to get started, and there is no need to purchase any products for this option. The expected benefit to health is high, as you remove many of the risks associated with extended periods seated, and are likely to see an increase in your productivity. The primary challenge with incorporating breaks is creating the time to take them during your busy schedule, or compatibility with certain types of work. If you can adjust your schedule to fit in even very brief breaks to walk, stretch, or perform a couple of exercises throughout your work day, this option is likely the most effective change you can make to reduce the negative impacts of a sedentary work environment.

Seated posture

Sometimes we wish that our workstations can be upgraded to take care of our health for us, and that with an ergonomic desk and chair setup, our issues are solved. Sadly for those of us with poor seated posture, this is not the case. A perfectly positioned desk and ergonomic chair can not compensate for a person who pitches their body forward, hunches shoulders, or cranes their neck forward, and I have found myself guilty of all three at times. Working on posture is a medium time commitment as it takes constant mindfulness and awareness of your body while your brain is focusing on the work at hand. It is a low financial investment as there are no products required, and the positive health impacts are high. While a well adjusted desk and chair can help support good posture, they can not do the work for us.

Ergonomic desk setup

Perhaps the fastest and most cost-effective improvement you can make to your desk setup is adjusting the positions of your desk, chair, monitor, and keyboard to an ergonomic setup. You can readily find free ergonomic calculators online which provide suggested measurements for the ideal desk setup based on your height. I have tried a couple of different calculators and have found one ergonomic calculator provides slightly lower settings than another ergonomic calculator for my height. Individual comfort is the deciding factor, so trying both the higher and lower setting, or an adjustment in between the two may lead you to an ergonomic desk setup that feels right. Depending on how adjustable your current workstation is, this can be a low investment in both time and money and promote a healthier working posture.

Ergonomic chair

The investment level for an ergonomic chair varies widely. From a quick search, we could purchase an ergonomic chair online from just under $200 to well over $1000 but the majority hover around the several hundred dollar range. Depending on your choice, this would be a medium-to-high investment level. It is a low time commitment to properly adjust if you purchase a commonly selected chair and the manufacturer or many users provide videos on how to adjust online. An example of a short, easy to follow adjustment video for a commonly used ergonomic chair is the Herman Miller Aeron. The key to finding the right ergonomic chair is to try it out in person. A chair can have every adjustment feature known to man and not fit your body well. The critical aspect is not to have a great chair, but a great fitting chair. A properly fitting, well-adjusted chair can support your body in the seated posture, and reduce the pressure that your body would otherwise bear in an ill-fitting or poorly adjusted chair.

Sit/stand workspace

If the challenge we are trying to address is too much sitting, then standing some of the time inherently reduces the total amount of time seated, and introduces variety in our body positions. Moving to standing all of the time is outside of the scope of this content as it would introduce its own set of ergonomic challenges as sitting for extended periods does. As with ergonomic chairs, the options for adjustable desks vary widely in cost. A quick search resulted in prices ranging from a little under $200 to around $2000 and desk sizes and features varied considerably. Dr. Robert H. Scherling provides excellent information around the health impacts of standing desks in his Harvard Health Blog, and points out that you also need to remember to switch between sitting and standing regularly during your work day to see the benefit. This, like taking breaks, requires awareness and creating the time to adjust. Manually adjustable desks will be able to be purchased at lower cost but require more time to transition, and automatic desks will trade increased cost for reduced transition time.

Treadmill desks

Treadmill desks vary in terms of space, noise, size of work surface, and whether the desk and treadmill are a combined unit or if a separate treadmill and desk must be purchased. The prices for treadmill desks range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. The impact to concentration and fine motor skills is an area that would likely depend on the individual and the job performed. Numerous personal accounts can be found online, and Jeff Heden shared his experience with a LifeSpan treadmill desk that was pricier and preferred to the other two he also tested. Treadmill desks are likely to require high levels of financial and time investment to rearrange the office setup and adjust to working while in motion. The health benefits are similarly high in the drastic increase in movement, increased calorie burn, and reduction in seated time.

Feasibility is another consideration that is very important, but is closely related to each individual work environment, and thus difficult to discuss broadly. For example, if your office structure does not have the space for a treadmill desk, then this option is not feasible for you unless you can be moved to a larger office with more space. If you work in manufacturing where the manufacturing line can not be modified to incorporate a sit/stand work space, then this may not be a feasible improvement for your work station. When considering any improvement, and limiting to those we can feasibly implement, the question to ask ourselves is whether the benefit will outweigh the costs for our unique situation and work environment.

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