There’s no going back from RSI: invest in your ergonomics now!March 22, 2010
As someone who’s had some really painful RSI, I’ve found that the typical office worker’s desk arrangement makes me wince. Every day I see poor posture and desk arrangements that are destined to cause people pain.
RSI is not something that most sufferers ever fully recover from. Once it happens, that’s when people start taking their ergonomics seriously, but that’s usually too late. RSI is like a Pandora’s Box: once its there, you’re looking at a lifetime of somewhere between mild discomfort and daily pain, depending on your case.
One day in 2004, a colleague of mine, a developer decided to get angry at his keyboard (or perhaps Windows!) and hammered the delete key in a repetitive manner a few hundred times. The next day, he’d lost the use of his left hand. He has never really recovered; good job he’s no longer a developer!
This put our office under extreme pressure for months. We couldn’t easily buy in help, and I took up most of the slack. Years of poor posture/ergonomics, plus a few months of stressful, additional workload resulted in constant pain in my hands, arms, shoulders, and neck. Many days I couldn’t manage to work at all.
To this day the tension has never been fully alleviated, although I did learn a lot along the way about how to cope. I took up hot yoga, tried physiotherapy,Â received regular sports massage, and changed how I work. Fortunately, I’m not coding much any more.
Let’s take some day to day examples: some do’s, some don’ts!
Here’s someone with his legs crossed under the desk, a big no-no. Good posture requires that the weight of your body is evenly distributed.
Sitting up straight, close to the desk, with a slight tilt backwards is the ideal. Feet should be flat on the floor with legs at 90 degrees. This often requires chair and desk adjustment in tandem.
Here’s something we see often at The Werks, laptop jockeys looking down. This is no good for your back and neck, the top of the monitor should be level with your eyes.
Here’s a quick, cheap improvement: using a laptop stand to raise it up.
Here’s an example of the keyboard and mouse being too far away. Eyes are at roughly the correct height, but there’s a stretch to reach the mouse and keyboard.
Elbows should be tucked in to the body, roughly level with the desk, and there should be minimal reaching to use the keyboard or mouse.
If you think about it, the typical keyboard and mouse arrangement is extremely unnatural for our hands: the ideal position is more like wielding an axe, rather than laying your hands down flat.
That’s why I use a split keyboard to soften the angle that my hands work at, and a pen tablet instead of a mouse. Split keyboards are expensive: a cheap alternative is the Microsoft ergonomic keyboard. Pen tablets can be had for around Â£50, but are harder work to adjust to.
Chairs are a very important, potentially expensive investment, but also a very personal thing. I find arms restrictive, but they are recommended. I’ve tried the big daddy of ergonomics (the Herman Miller Aeron chair) but I found that I felt too far back in the seat (although it is very comfy for most people). I’d recommend trying as many chairs as possible, and making sure the lower back is supported.
One of the main problems we tend to suffer from is the sedentary nature of our desk work.
I use software that forces me to take a break every 40 minutes. Some have a really hard time adjusting to this, but in the long run I’ve found that my concentration improved with regular screen breaks. I think this helps you see the wood from the trees.
Incidentally: some of the best known, innovative design firms in the world (Ideo, Adaptive Path) try to spend as little time at the computer as possible – being constrained by the desk and screen is seen as inhibiting creativity.
Hope you’ve found this useful: I wish someone had gotten me to take it seriously before I was in a lot of pain. The costs are nothing if you consider the long term implications.
Special thanks to those who I’ve used as examples!