For years, back pain has been considered the most burdensome non-fatal illness worldwide1. In Europe, it‘s one of the most frequent causes of work-related disability. While specific back pain (about 15 per cent) has a specific physical trigger, the cause of non-specific back pain (about 85 per cent) usually remains unclear2. However, there are some known risk factors, some of which, such as prolonged sitting, one-sided and incorrect strain as well as lack of exercise, can be avoided or at least reduced with the following tips for ergonomic working – wherever we mainly work in a sedentary position: at school or in university, in the office or while working from home.
In order to be able to sit properly at the workplace, what is needed is office furniture and office equipment that neither tempts nor forces the body to remain in a rigid posture all the time – because that means hard work for the body. The back and neck muscles tense up and, sooner or later, they hurt. People who counter the pain by taking a protective posture usually only make things worse.
But how and with what do workplaces have to be equipped with so that sitting correctly becomes a matter of course? The office chair plays the main role in sitting correctly. It should support the natural course of the spine, thus preventing any incorrect posture. The seat height should be continuously adjustable, as should the seat tilt and seat depth. Ideally, a special seat-depth suspension absorbs the body weight when sitting down. It‘s important that the office chair makes it possible to switch from one correct sitting position to another again and again.
On office chairs with so-called three-dimensional seat dynamics, which provide for “moving sitting”, you can move forwards, backwards and sideways. This promotes the natural sequence of movements and relieves any back strain. Ergonomic alternatives to the classic office chair are saddle chairs and pendulum chairs as well as the classic sitting ball.
The correct sitting posture can also be achieved with an orthopaedic seat cushion and/or footrest. They come in various designs, often also for specific purposes. Professional advice can help you choose the right aid.
The desk also plays a significant role in determining how healthy your back is when working at it. The decisive factor here is the adjustable height, which, at best, enables you to work while sitting and standing.
Alternatively, special attachments which, when placed on the desk top at seat height, allow you to work while standing, have also proved their worth. If the office is spacious enough, an extra standing desk, which you can always switch to, is a good idea.
To ensure that working in a standing position isn’t too static, you can use special standing desk mats that encourage you to change your healthy stance and keep moving while working standing up. And if you need a support for healthy standing, you can find one in a variety of forms in specialist shops.
Many people who work sitting down most of the time assume that they can compensate for the health risks associated with sitting down by doing two or three hours of exercise a week. However, this only works to a limited extent, because three hours of physical activity per week are offset by up to 40 hours of inactivity – if you only count the hours spent sitting at school, at university and in the office. On top of that, many hours are often spent sitting down during one’s non-working hours.
If you sit properly for 40 minutes, stand for 15 minutes and walk for 5 minutes every working hour, you have a good recipe to combat back pain and the like. For example, telephone calls are a good opportunity to walk. NB: When walking at work, you should make sure not to walk in circles, but in figure of eights so as to actively engage both sides of the brain.
Those who spend their breaks actively moving prevent back pain, because, with every step they take, their muscles and joints are loosened, stretched and elongated. The best place to take an active break is outdoors in the fresh air. If this is not possible for you, then you should at least ventilate the office properly and stretch a lot. What is even better is a short training session that gets the body, which has been stressed by working, going again. Thanks to the Internet, this can also take place with professional guidance.
At best, movement at work isn’t limited to breaks. After all, there are hardly any reasons not to have a walking meeting! This is exemplified by the world’s top politicians, for example, when they meet at summits and settle political matters while on a walk. And if you look back into history, the Romans settled everything important in their world in the public bathhouse – they enjoyed a flourishing business meeting with a spa programme thrown in at the same time!
There is one or the other office utensil that ensures greater ergonomics at the workplace. Besides ergonomic keyboards, mice and special palm rests that maintain the health of your hands, arms, shoulders, neck and back, they include, for example, classic reading stands. They lift the reading material (documents, brochures, books, tablets) into a reading-friendly position, thus relieving the strain on your neck and eyes while reading. At the same time, they leave your hands free for other work.
And even though many workplaces now use digital devices, writing by hand is often unavoidable, especially at school. Here, too, it’s vital that the writing utensils (pens and writing aids) used by children and young people who write a lot by hand are ergonomically shaped.
Last but not least, workplace lighting conditions play a major role in creating a healthy working atmosphere. Natural daylight is preferable here, but must often be supplemented by artificial light, as not everyone has a desk near or under a window. The aim of workplace lighting is to provide the best possible illumination. This can be achieved with a combination of daylight, desk lighting and room lighting (i.e. on the ceiling and walls). A window near the desk, however, not only provides light but also a view. An unobstructed view of the outside is good for the eyes and vital for your personal well-being at the workplace.
About the author:
The freelance journalist on organic matters and #motherof4 Doreen Brumme blogs at doreenbrumme.de about enjoying an organic lifestyle at work, at school and within the family.