Expert Interview: Getting Ergonomics Right for your Remote Workers
Ergonomic, Remote Workplace Wellness
Getting remote workers set-up right is important
And who better to explain why than David Bernardi, President of Summit Ergonomics and author of From Pain to Productivity, Fixing America’s Workspaces One Desk at a Time I had the pleasure of interviewing David about the rising tide of musko-skeletal problems in office workers, how the increase in remote working is contributing to it and the critical factors to consider when ensuring remote workers get set up right.
HW: Welcome David, Let’s get right into it; What are the 3 most common issues you are seeing with the current surge in Remote Work ?
DB: Thanks for having me Heidi. I would say number one has got to be the use of laptops. While they are a great productivity tool and provide great mobility, they are an ergonomic nightmare. Two has got to be the positions folks have been adopting as they work. They’re usually dictated by external factors such as the lack of dedicated space, the need to watch the kids, the need for quiet, the need for a nice background for video calls etc. Three is probably folks who like to work in front of a window for natural light, not realizing it’s a major strain on the eyes.
HW: Guilty ! Can you explain a bit about the laptop and how we can correct that ?
DB: Sure. The typical laptop has a slightly narrower keyboard with built in mousing of some sort, a 15” screen plus or minus that’s usually less bright for power saving purposes and a geometry where the screen is in roughly the same view area as the keyboard. So by definition if you have the laptop where you need it to keep your hands in a safe typing position, your neck will be flexed for a long period of time. If you figure your head weighs as much as a bowling ball, the stress that a tilted head places on the neck and the upper back muscles is VERY significant.
When we type and mouse on the laptop, our hands are positioned at the center of our body which places our wrists in a deviation for long periods of time. This is compounded by the fact that we as a society have gotten bigger in the torso and upper body which means our arms are wider apart making the wrist deviation even worse.
Lastly, our sense of vision pretty much dictates the posture we take on, so if our laptop screen is hard to see, that means we tend to lean into the screen to see it better. So we are either craning our necks or leaning in by bending at the waist, thereby stressing our low back, or some combination of each.
HW: How do we fix that exactly, then ?
DB: I absolutely recommend an external keyboard and mouse for laptop use. This enables you to have a normal size keyboard for easier typing and to place the mouse so your arm and wrist are neutral. Then you can either raise the laptop up to proper viewing level to avoid neck and eye strain, or plug in a larger external monitor to achieve the same. I use a monitor arm and an attached laptop holder which is really slick. I get the laptop up off the desk, freeing up space and I can swing in or out as needed. If its been a long day of computing I bring it closer so I can see it in spite of eye fatigue. And if you can plug in your laptop, you don’t need to conserve battery, so your brightness can be higher to provide the contrast you need based on the room brightness.
HW: Brilliant! You mentioned the positions people are adopting in the work from home situation. What are you seeing out there ?
DB: Pretty much everything. Folks sitting on their couch or recliner, standing or sitting on stools at the kitchen counter, sitting on the floor back against the couch with their laptop on the coffee table, in their bed with pillows to “support” their back, in bedroom closets and bathrooms for quiet space, ironing boards being used as sit-stand desks, and of course the most common, the kitchen table with the open back hard chair. It’s no wonder that Chubb Insurance found in a recent poll that 41% of the WFH population has new or increased pains in their shoulders, wrist or back.
HW: So what can we do about that ?
DB: I think the biggest thing to emphasize here is the need to get up and change posture frequently. I think we get so into what we are doing we forget to move, next thing you know we’ve been in the same position for 2 hours and you can’t feel a certain part of your body because you’ve temporarily restricted bloodflow or nerve supply. Set a timer on your fitness watch or monitor, or get yourself an app for the phone to remind yourself to move.
Often times these crazy postures we find ourselves in, is because there isn’t a dedicated office space. I don’t have a dedicated office either, but I do have a dedicated desk. A single leg LifeDesk sit-stand, 24×48 top, on casters, with my laptop as I said before. So I often find myself in a guest bedroom or in the family room if I need to work after hours. I can wheel it around based on what I need to accomplish. Zoom call, I put it so my back is to the wall, if the sun is shining in the window, I rotate the desk 90 to avoid the glare. And to have the ability to raise and lower when I want is great. I usually take calls standing, and I sit when I am doing spreadsheets, or writing. My company Summit partnered with the manufacturer LifeDesk to bundle a cool app from StanData for all our customers who buy a LifeDesk. The app allows me to control my desk with my laptop or phone. I get reminders and can check my data for how many times I stood up and sat down, how many extra calories I burned…cool stuff.
HW: So you’re a fan of sit-stand desks ?
DB: Absolutely…with the caveat that they are used properly. In other words, frequent transitioning, and proper positioning for sitting and standing. A lot of folks get a sit-stand and think the more standing the better. Next thing you know, they are so sore the next day from standing all day, they never use it again. Or worse, people get the devices that sit on top of the desk that can be difficult or awkward to lift, and they go unused. If you leave them in the down position, they make the sitting ergonomics worse, and if you leave them up, people then want stools so they can sit at their standing station. Makes no sense.
HW: Tell me about chairs. Will a new chair fix my sore back ?
DB: I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me for a new chair because their back was hurting. An office chair is typically designed to place the spine in a supported position. But if you are sitting on the front edge of your chair because it is poorly sized or mal-adjusted, your spine is getting no support and it doesn’t matter how much you spend on the chair. You won’t get relief. Or some chairs provide great support in the low back area, but then the upper part of the chair angles off so the upper back gets no support if the user prefers to sit upright. It’s really about education of the user, proper adjustment of the chair, and having the monitor, keyboard and mouse in the right place so that the user can have their entire back fully supported regardless of the position they prefer to work in. The desk setup and the chair have to complement each other.
HW: Because our vision dictates our posture, right ?
DB: Exactly! By putting the monitor at the correct distance for the user so that it’s in focus when the user is in their preferred seated position, then they can have a fully supported spine. That’s why I love monitor arms so much. They don’t get enough love for what they do. The ability to move the monitor in and out, is just as important as up and down, if not moreso. Plus, all the room you save on the desktop by lifting them off the desk. I see so many monitors sitting on reams of paper or stacks of books. I just shake my head.
HW: Is there anything I should keep in mind when buying a monitor arm ?
DB: Yes, make sure your monitor has VESA mounting capability…it’s the 4 holes on the back of the monitor arranged in a 100mm (4”) square pattern. Also be sure to match the weight of the monitor to the arm strength. Some newer monitors are quite light, and some of the larger monitors or all-in-ones can be quite heavy. And there are arms for multiple combinations of monitors, 3 across, 2 over 2, 3 over 3. Some arms offer independent movement of monitors and some are tethered together with cross bars.
HW: You talked earlier about the weight of a tilted head. I’ve read that there’s actually a syndrome called “Texter’s Neck”. Is that true ?
DB: Absolutely, the younger generations who have spent lots of time on their phone, tablet or laptop are starting to show degenerative changes in their cervical spine (neck). The head tilt is creating abnormal muscle tension and ligament stress which is actually shifting bones. With kids being in the formative growth stages, physicians are actually seeing reversals in the curve of the spine in young adults and teens and changes in bone morphology. This could be a future epidemic.
And its not limited to the neck either. Degenerative changes in hips are being seen amongst teen girls because they have been allowed to do homework on their beds while typically sitting Indian style. I haven’t seen a paper on this, so it may be anecdotal, but it makes sense.
HW: We hear that with remote work, mental health issues are becoming more of a problem. Can you elaborate ?
DB: Well I am not a mental health expert by any stretch, but I read the isolation of remote work is taking its toll on those who feed off of the camaraderie of their workplace. Especially when we are not able to socialize elsewhere due to the pandemic. But I will say that prior to the pandemic, mental health in the workplace was already a big deal. Statistics show mental health issues was affecting 1 in 5 in the workplace pre-pandemic.
Obviously the potential sources of life stress and work stress are too many to list, but as I did research for my book, I became aware of 3 factors that I think get overlooked that may play a greater role than we think.
Number one is Blue Light. Most LED screens emit blue light. Blue light suppresses melatonin (sleep hormone) and increases cortisol, the stress hormone, (also the awakening hormone) which tells your body when its time to get up. So as we watch TV to wind down for the evening or if we check our emails before bed, we are getting hormone fluctuations which may make it tough to fall asleep. Granted there are now filters and the OLED technology is supposed to reduce this, but I think it’s still problem for many.
Number two is the substances we put in our body. Processed foods, sugary drinks, medicines all of it. Our gut is like a second brain. The gut-brain connection does not get enough exposure in the press in my mind. The microbes in our gut produce GABA neurotransmitters which have been shown to help anxiety and depression. We need to foster the good microbes in the gut for a healthy brain. Everytime we are exposed to an antibiotic for example, our gut flora gets diminished. Or if we eat a lot of sugar the candida bacteria can start overgrowing in the gut throwing off the whole flora balance.
Number three is the hip flexor complex. Ask anyone who teaches yoga, we carry stress in our hip flexors. Those are the muscles in the front of your body that connect the legs to the torso. Because we spend so much time sitting….in the car, on the couch, in our office chair, the hip muscles are chronically tense (shortened). Turns out tight hip flexors affect our ability to breathe deeply which in turn signals the amygdala of our brain which where is the “fight or flight” response is based. That’s why Yoga is so great for mindfulness work. Yoga helps teach people how to consciously relax the hip flexors and to breathe deeply to get the amygdala to quiet down. When the amygdala is quiet then the executive center of the brain can get back to work for better focus and concentration.
HW: Wow, that’s amazing. Anything else you want to add before we wrap up ?
DB: I think anything we can do to help reduce the amount of sitting we do during the day is helpful to keeping those hip flexors from getting tight. That’s part of the reason the sit-stand desks work so well when used properly. Standing elongates the hip muscles, and allows us to breathe more deeply. There’s a host of other physiologic benefits too that have been proven out such as reduction in LDL cholesterol levels, increased bloodflow and reduced blood glucose. Standing also reduces compression forces on the spine which is why low back patients feel more comfortable standing. But, everything in moderation. Standing all day isn’t the answer either. Frequent postural transition is part of the solution for sure. Post pandemic, if or when the staff returns, I would also encourage the readers to take a look at what foods are being offered to the employees in the cafeteria. Have a nutritionist assess the quality of the options. This is a big part of the solution as well.
HW: David, thank you for your time today, this has been very informative.
DB: My pleasure Heidi.
David Bernardi is the president of Summit Ergonomics, an ergonomics equipment and services provider based in Manchester, NH. He has a Masters Degree in Bioengineering and can be reached via email at email@example.com