Don’t just sit there!

We’ve all seen it. The graphic of the office worker sitting with the arms and hips bent at 90 degrees and the back rigidly upright has been used over and over as a reference for how we should sit. “Ergonomically correct.” “Proper,” as our mothers used to say. If our mothers could direct our office sitting protocol, we would all be balancing apples on our heads and getting up at the end of the day, we dare say, quite stiff.

The “ergonomically correct” method of sitting is, for the most part, better for us. However, sometimes the work station and chair do not permit this “ideal” posture. The keyboard height might not adjust, so we have to raise the chair up so our arms can bend at the prescribed 90 degree angle. We get a footrest, knowing that dangling our feet is an ergo “no-no”. We might even go to the trouble to get a footrest that is the right height. And the first time we sit at our newly ergonomically-designed work station, we sit “properly”, hips and elbows at the recommended 90 degrees. But then we have to jump up to fetch a fax, and we come back to our desk, hurrying to respond. We jump back onto the chair, grasp the work surface and pull the chair close to the keyboard. Away we go, feet comfortably resting on the footrest. Moments later, the boss calls, wanting an impromptu meeting. After five minutes, we return to our desk, panicking because the response to the fax is now late. Do we bother to pull the chair in this time? Sometimes, “ergonomically correct” sitting is just too much effort.

And why is it that not everyone comes down with a wicked case of lower back pain as a result of all these indecent sitting activities? Truth is, we do. A majority of office workers experience back pain at some point. But that back attack is more likely to occur on a ten-hour-work-to-a-deadline day than on a regular working day when you are up and down periodically. Research suggests that movement is the key to preventing back pain. Those of us who shift around in our chairs all day tend to catch a lot of flack from our well-meaning ergonomically-minded friends. We get caught sitting on our feet and crossing our legs and slouching and sitting perched on the edge of our chairs. People say we have “ants in our pants”. But maybe we had it right all along. Maybe ergonomists should be encouraging people to set up their work stations with a “home” position, where the feet are supported, the hips and elbows are at 90 degrees, the wrists are straight, and the back is nicely supported. Then, ergonomists should encourage office workers to move frequently throughout the day, and periodically come back to this “home” position. Some of the new chairs on the market move with the user, supporting the back as the worker moves at his or her work station. “Ergonomically correct” also needs to be almost effortless.

The moral of this story? What we really need is furniture and chairs that allow us to change posture periodically throughout the day. We should be able to adjust our chairs and keyboards so that even the shortest of us can sit with our feet firmly supported on the floor and our elbows at about 90 degrees. And, ideally, our work surfaces should quickly and easily adjust upward so that even the tallest of us can stand comfortably to work, should we choose to. Beyond that, we should encourage movement within the job – get your own fax, stretch regularly, deliver your own mail, and take a walking break rather than a coffee! Don’t just sit there!

For more information on office ergo, join us for our Office Ergo workshop on October 22!

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