The Right Fit

Designing the ideal workplace using common sense

Issue: Mar 2010

One of a series of talks on ergonomics for CapitaLand staff by chiropractor, Dr Shara Downey
One of a series of talks on ergonomics for CapitaLand staff by chiropractor, Dr Shara Downey

Have you been experiencing: a) neck ache; b) headache; or c) backache from sitting at your office desk? If your answer is one of the above or all of the above, you are not alone.

Statistics show that 7 out of 10 working adults in Singapore suffer from work-related musculoskeletal disorders or MSD. The body parts with the highest report of pain are the neck (46%), shoulder (42%) and low back (42%).

Although there are no local statistics to show how these aches and pains affect a person’s work, studies elsewhere have shown that migraine sufferers lose 8.1 workdays a year and another 4.9 days of reduced effectiveness. Sufferers of other kinds of headaches lose 8 days of work and another 6 days are lost to lower effectiveness.

One size doesn’t fit all

Since most of us work at our desks some 80-90% of the time in the office, our body strains have a lot to do with the way we sit and work at our desk.

Some of the strains result from awkward postures such as twisting your neck to view your monitor or reaching forward or to the side to use your mouse; static forces such as holding positions for long periods of time (i.e. sitting, bending your neck to read the monitor, reaching to type on the keyboard or sandwiching the phone cradle between your shoulder and cheek while typing away at the computer).

“Generally our office desks and chairs are all of the same size and height. Unfortunately, we are not all of the same size and height. So what fits you may not fit me. One size doesn’t fit all,” says Dr Shara Downey, a chiropractor from Asia Chiropratic.

So how can we find the right fit for our body?

Common sense prevails

Applying ergonomic (defined as fitting the job to the worker) principles can help prevent work-related back pain and back injury and help maintain a healthy back.

And it does not always mean investing in expensive ergonomic furniture where the chairs and tables are usually adjustable.

“Look around your house and office to see what you can use to make it better for you,” advises Dr Shara.

She advocates using common sense to adjust to your environment because even if you do have the money to invest in furniture that are ergonomically-designed, learning basic ergonomic principles or what’s the right fit for you will go a long way in protecting your neck, head and back.

“By customizing our workstation, we can reduce our stress by about 30%,” she says.

Clues of Breakdown

Participants helping each other to check their posture
Participants helping each other to check their posture
To begin your journey to a healthier posture at the workstation, there are some questions you can ask yourself: Are your wrists bent? Are your elbows flexed 90 degrees? Are your shoulders relaxed? Is the center of your monitor at nose level? Do you have a headset?

Having self-awareness is half the battle won.

“Many times we are not aware that our shoulders are creeping up slowly and by the end of the day, you are walking around with shoulders all tensed and up by your ears,” says Dr Shara.

The ABCs of sitting right

Adopting a user-friendly workstation can really be as easy as ABC.

To begin, adjust your office chair to a height where your elbows are flexed at 90 degrees.

“We recommend a chair with arm rests,” advises Dr Shara. “Each arm can weigh between 2-3 kilogrammes so even if you try and hold them at right angles for a short period of time, they can get pretty heavy and then your shoulder and neck muscles will start to strain.”

Dr Shara also points out that if after raising your chair to the right level and your feet cannot touch the floor, you should rest them flatly on a footstool so that your legs are also at right angles, allowing better blood circulation to your feet and toes.

Dr Shara showing participants the strain on the neck when one looks down at the computer screen
Dr Shara showing participants the strain on the neck when one looks down at the computer screen

Next, sit up but if you sit towards the front of your chair like most people, you will end up hunching forward to look at your computer screen.

“The better-seated posture is to sit back in the office chair and utilize the chair’s lumbar support to keep the head and neck erect. You experience 40-50% extra stress on the neck when you keep looking down,” says Dr Shara.

Now that you have adopted correct posture, it is time to adjust everything else around to suit you.

Raise your computer screen (using a monitor riser or simply just a couple of phonebooks) to your eye level. “The rule is that the top of the monitor casing should be 5-8 centimetres above eye level. Many people make the common mistake of adjusting the middle of the screen to eye level. That is too high already,” says Dr Shara,

Dr Shara adds another quick tip if you are starting to squint after focusing on the screen for a long period of time: “Look up and look far,” she advises.

Other valuable tips

Dr Shara offers other tips to help maintain your back, neck and head from getting musculoskeletal disorders.

“We all know that drinking eight glasses of water a day is good for us. But don’t put a big 2-litre jug or bottle on your desk. Use a mug instead. In this way, you will be forced to get out of your chair every now and then to go to the pantry and get your water or go to the toilet. Moving and getting out prevents your body from getting fixed in one position,” she says.

Some stretching techniques that office workers can use during their stretch breaks
Some stretching techniques that office workers can use during their stretch breaks

Take stretch breaks as well while you are up and about. “It is important to keep your muscles and ligaments flexible because tight muscles can cause chronic pain,” says Dr Shara.

It is not hard to do them. Lightly holding your head to one side for a few seconds and then doing the same to the other side can provide relief to the neck. You can also cross one arm over the other, interlace your fingers and extend your arms in front at shoulder height. Hold this stretch position for 10 to 20 seconds. This exercise is great for releasing tension in your upper arms and upper back.

Ergonomics at CapitaLand

CapitaLand has begun a series of talks that relate to ergonomics at the workplace this year.

“CapitaLand is one of the most progressive companies in Singapore that I have worked with. They are constantly looking at how to improve the lives and well-being of their staff at the workplace,” comments Dr Shara.

So, even if you do not feel aches and pains at the end of the day, it is important to make as many improvements to your workstation as possible. The best cure for musculoskeletal injuries is to prevent them.

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