Workstation Ergonomics: Take a Break!

Creating a good, ergonomic working environment is important to protecting your back and neck. From simply taking more breaks to overhauling your work space with a sit-stand desk, the tips below will protect your spine and overall health. 
Woman at work, holding a clock.Ergonomists agree that it's a good idea to take frequent and brief rest breaks. Photo Source:

Take a Break

Staying in the same position and using the same muscles for hours at a time is not good for your back or neck. Ergonomists (those who design spaces to reduce discomfort and fatigue) agree that it's a good idea to take frequent and brief rest breaks. And, it’s not just your legs that need a break every now and then.

While at work, practice the following:

  • Eye breaks: Looking at a computer screen for extended periods causes some changes in how your eyes work, including blinking less often and exposing more of the eye surface to air. Every 15 minutes, briefly look away from the computer screen for a minute or two to a more distant scene, preferably something more than 20 feet away. This lets the muscles inside the eye relax. Also, blink your eyes rapidly for a few seconds. This refreshes the tear film and clears dust from the eye surface.
  • Micro-breaks: Micro-breaks are less than two minutes long and perfect to do between bouts of typing. Most people type in bursts rather than continuously. Between these bursts of activity, rest your hands in a relaxed, flat, straight posture. Though micro-breaks are short, you can stretch, stand up, move around, or do a different work task (such as make a phone call). A micro-break isn't necessarily a break from work, but it's a break from using a set of muscles (such as the finger flexors if you're doing a lot of typing).
  • Rest breaks: Every 30 to 60 minutes, take a brief rest break. During this break, stand up, move around, and do something else. Get a beverage, chat up a coworker, or take a lap around the office. This allows you to rest and exercise different muscles, and you'll feel less tired.
  • Exercise breaks: There are many stretching and gentle exercises you can do to help relieve muscle fatigue. You should do these every one to two hours.
  • Ergonomic software: Working at a computer can be hypnotic—you can easily lose track of how long you've been working. Ergonomic software is available that will monitor how much you've been using your computer. It will prompt you to take a rest break at appropriate intervals and suggest simple exercises.

Sit-Stand Desks and Other Ergonomic Products

Many ergonomically designed products are available to help improve the comfort of your workplace environment and promote spine health. You might consider a special chair, computer accessory, or sit-stand desk (also known as a sit-to-stand desk) to promote proper posture.

These items may be adjusted and customized to meet your specific needs. They may also encourage healthy long-term habits that can reduce or prevent back and neck pain. Sit-to-stand desks, for example, allow the seamless transition from working in a sitting position to a standing pose. These desks encourage you to vary your posture throughout the day, which has a wealth of health benefits (including burning a few extra calories).

Ergonomic products are an investment in your health, so you should take time to research any potential purchases before buying. If you're thinking about buying an ergonomic product, ask yourself the following four questions:

  1. Does the product design and the manufacturer's claims make sense? What research evidence can the manufacturer provide to support their claims?
  2. Has the product been studied by researchers?
  3. Are you comfortable using the product for a long period? Some ergonomic products may feel strange or slightly uncomfortable at first because they often produce a change in your posture that's beneficial in the long run. Think of some products as being like new shoes that initially feel strange but then are eventually comfortable. If a product continues to feel uncomfortable after a reasonable trial period (at least a week), it’s time to stop using it.
  4. What do ergonomics experts say about the product? If they don't recommend it, don't use it.

If you’re considering a flexible height desk, there are additional considerations when buying a sit-stand desk.

Improving your spine health at work can be as simple as making time for some gentle stretches. Or, you might consider making an investment in a sit-stand desk that encourages you to vary your posture throughout the day. Whatever you choose, keeping your back and neck in mind during your workday  using basic ergonomic practices will infuse a bit of health into your 9-to-5 and may prevent pain in the future.

Updated on: 09/03/19
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