by Niamh Pentony, Ergonomist and Director at Boyne Ergonomics
During DSE workstation assessments, we put a huge emphasis on trying to achieve the optimum DSE workstation posture, but dos it really matter? To put it bluntly, yes it does matter, in the short and the long term. Adverse postures, along with prolonged sitting, longer working hours and increased stress levels, can increase the risk of developing health issues that can have a negative impact for years to come.
This article will outline why posture is important, common adverse postures associated with computer workstations, the negative effects of adverse postures, what constitutes a good / neutral computer workstation and tips to maintain a neutral posture during the working day.
What is posture and why is it important?
When we talk about posture, what we are referring to is the body’s alignment and positioning in relation to gravity. In any posture, gravity exerts forces on the musculoskeletal system.
When we adopt ‘good’ postures, the force of gravity is distributed appropriately, with no excessive stress placed on any one joint or muscle group. In these postures, the body is more efficient, we experience reduced fatigue and strain, and our respiratory, circulatory and digestive system are optimized.
What are common adverse workstation postures?
The increase in home working due to COVID-19 has seen a corresponding increase in poor, or adverse, postures when working at the computer. This is due in part to poor home workstation setup.
The image below is representative of a high percentage of reported and observed adverse postures among employees working from home.
Typical adverse postures observed in recent weeks:
- Protruding head and neck
- Rounded shoulders, thoracic and lumbar spine.
- Raised / shrugged shoulders
- Flexed and deviated wrists
What are the negative effects of adverse seated postures?
Adverse postures have a negative short and long-term impact on the musculoskeletal, digestive, respiratory and circulatory systems as well as your psychological wellbeing.
Leaning forward and looking down at the monitor causes the weight of the head to be supported by increased musculoskeletal effort and stretched ligaments, instead of being balanced over the spine.
Rounding of the upper and lower back also causes abnormal compression of the spinal discs, leading to increased abnormal wear and tear, as well as misalignment of the spine.
This causes increased neck, shoulder, upper back, lower back and hip pain.
Rounded shoulders and back compresses the organs of the digestive system. This reduces digestive function, increasing the risk of acid reflux and constipation. Noticing an increase in heartburn since working from home? Check your posture (and diet)!
Rounded shoulders and back causes the muscles in the chest to tighten, limiting rib cage expansion and preventing the diaphragm from opening fully. This results in a more rapid and shallow breathing pattern. This encourages activation of the nervous system and causes the body to be in a state of stress.
Adverse posture also causes additional strain on the primary breathing muscles. The body responds by recruiting other muscles to help with breathing. These are usually the neck muscles, which then become overworked resulting in neck pain, shoulder pain, headaches and migraines.
Adverse postures reduce blood flow to the muscles and internal organs affecting their ability to function efficiently.
Increased pressure on the veins, especially in the legs, can damage them and cause varicose veins.
Adverse postures cause increased tension in the muscles, making it difficult to relax the body at night. Muscular pain and discomfort can make it difficult to get into a comfortable position to fall asleep and can increase night wakening. This reduces the duration and quality of sleep.
The negative effects mentioned above can act to negatively affect our mood and psychological wellbeing. Adverse postures also negatively affect the nervous system, including compression of the nerves, causing a chain reaction that negatively impacts your emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Just as adverse postures can negatively impact the body, neutral and supported postures can maintain efficient body function.
What is an appropriate / neutral seated posture when working at the computer?
- Stable base – Feet planted on the floor or on a footrest / books / box
- Hips slightly above knees – this will open the hips and allow normal curvature of the spine.
- Ensure your lower back is supported – this will help reduce the static load. If your chair has no lumbar support, add a cushion, pillow or rolled up towel at your lower back.
- Sit upright with chest open – this will improve oxygen intake.
- Ensure your elbows are level with your desk surface – this will encourage an upright posture and reduce strain on the shoulders, arms and wrists. if your seating is not height adjustable, add cushioning to the seat to elevate your seated position.
- Ensure the top of your monitor is in your eyeline – this will encourage an upright posture and reduce neck strain. If you are using a laptop, raise it on a laptop stand, books or boxes and use an external keyboard and mouse.
- Keep inputting devices close to your seated position – this will reduce the strain on your shoulders, arms and wrists.
How can you ensure appropriate postures are maintained during the working day?
- Ensure your workstation is set up as best it can to encourage neutral postures.
- Take regular microbreaks every 30 – 45 minutes from the computer. Even with an ergonomically sound workstation, muscular fatigue will still be a factor and will encourage adverse postures. Regular microbreaks will reduce muscular fatigue when seated.
- Alternate postures regularly. When working from home, use video calls as an opportunity to move to a standing position by placing the laptop on a high surface and take the video call in a standing position, taking the video call on your mobile or invest in a set of wireless headphones, turning off the camera at intervals to walk around.
- Regular aerobic exercise and / or Pilates will improve muscle tone and encourage improved posture.
About the author
Niamh has been working in the area of workplace ergonomics since 2009, specialising in assessing and adapting workstations to reduce pain and discomfort, having completed a Masters in Applied Ergonomics from the University of Nottingham.
In June 2019 Niamh launched Boyne Ergonomics, an independent ergonomics consultancy company that specialises in virtual and onsite DSE Risk Assessments and workplace Ergonomic Risk Assessments. Niamh works with employers in corporate, industrial and educational settings to ensure their employees can work safely and efficiently, whether it is an employee returning from absence, an employee reporting pain at work, an employee with additional needs or a general preventative review of current workstations.
Since April 2020, Niamh has been working with employers in to ensure their home-based employees have the appropriate education, equipment and set-up to reduce their risk of musculoskeletal injury, eye strain and stress.
Niamh is a member of the Irish Human Factors & Ergonomics Society and the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.