Can ergonomics improve health? I asked the expert!

| Martina Pardo | Archive

Hello design lovers!

Have you ever been interested in posture at work? I wasn't. I had to experience a series of side effects before starting to be. Every time people looked at me, slumping at my desk during the last 10 years, they always recommended that I paid attention to my posture. I didn't.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert slumping on desk

Yes, that's me...

Sure enough, during the last three months, I experienced back and neck pain, headaches, wrist pain, and sore eyes. Someone could remark that I'm not twenty years old anymore (nasty people would) but I'm more inclined to blame my non-ergonomic chair.


I practiced Yoga with Adriene, went to the Jung Shim center where they thought me how to breathe properly, tried to sit in the right position (which I honestly find uncomfortable), and stopped working on the bed. Overall I started to feel a lot better. But I still think that what people on the Internet describe as "right posture" is the most unnatural of all! I just can't keep it.


Back in October, I attended a well-being workshop at Soho Works in Shoreditch. The event was organised by Humanscale, leading brand in ergonomic design and manufacturing. They invest a lot of time researching and training people about ergonomics. On that occasion, they invited us to try some interesting well-being activities, such as kinesiology or aura photography. You can read all about it in this post.

My favourite activity was the 1-2-1 session with Sukhi, the sweet young lady who is an Associate Ergonomist for Humanscale and devoted her life to training people about ergonomics.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert 1 2 1 session

Me and Sukhi at the Humanscale blogger event - Image courtesy of Amara IBA

I thought ergonomic furniture was boring. And ugly.
I was wrong! I realised that I didn't even know what ergonomics means. Those 20 minutes were so interesting and thought me so much that I couldn't resist asking Sukhi for an interview.



M. Let's start with the basics. What is ergonomics?

S. Ergonomics is a multi-disciplinary approach, to achieve a good fit between the worker, the equipment they use, the task they do, and the environment in which they work. It’s not specific to a product, it’s about our overall well-being. When ergonomic design principles are applied to a space or set-up, people become proactive about how to be comfortable.
It’s the science of fitting the physical environment to the worker. We can’t change our bodies, but we can change the workplace to fit us.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert ergonomic workstation 1

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert ergonomic workstation 2

M. This sounds interesting. How can we do that?

S. A good example is a task chair. If a chair has got too many components/leavers, the likely chances of someone using them effectively is very slim. Humanscale products fit the body naturally: you don’t have to figure out how to sit, it will automatically fit you. Their chairs can accommodate each user regardless of size and weight. 

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert chair 1

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert chair 2

M. What are the most common misconceptions about ergonomics?

S. Firstly, most people don’t know what it is! Secondly, they usually think it’s all related to their back, which is just a little part of it. Sometimes, workers with a bad back may blame the chair for causing discomfort. But what they really need is to move more. You need to look at all the elements involved, and not just focus on the chair.  

M. Are you saying that people's awareness is more important than having a perfect workstation?

S. Both go hand in hand! Obviously having the right equipment is a great starting point but if people don’t keep active they won’t feel healthier. I recommend taking 3-4 short micro-breaks (anywhere between 30 to 60 seconds) per hour, per day.

M. That's so true! My main struggle with keeping the right posture is that I can't keep it. I constantly need to move or I get bored and start slumping.

S. Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal; movement is key! Ideally, what would help, would be to alternate between sitting and standing positions. Try to sit for 45 minutes and then stand for 15 minutes. We can burn 340 calories per day by spending two hours standing. After one hour of sitting, 90% of our fat-burning enzymes stop working. So keep moving, and leave some room for that extra slice of cake!  Standing up means that you are more likely to move around, which is very important for blood circulation. You will feel more productive and healthier. 

Note Humanscale has a floating desk that is designed exactly for this purpose. It's so easy to use that adjusting it between sitting and standing postures takes the same amount of time to actually stand up.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert float desk 1

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert float desk 2

That said, if you guys are not ready to invest in this product at the moment (I understand, I have had to count my pennies a million times), you can use a kitchen counter or a chest of drawers instead. It works, I tried! But let's get back to the interview.

M. I really like this idea of keeping active. What else can we do?

S. Diversity is key. There are other solutions to make slow movements that keep you active. For example, you could use the Ballo stool: the body will still be comfortable but you have to actively find balance. It's meant to make people move a lot more, people don’t move. It doesn’t replace the chair though; you can use it for a short time just to make the body aware of a good posture.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert ballo stool

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert ballo rocking footrest

Alternatively, you could try a rocking footrest. It keeps the blood oxygen circulating and you'll be more likely to recline on the back of the chair, promoting a slow movement that is critical for maintaining spinal health.

M. What's a common mistake that people make while designing an office?

S. Lighting. There are different types of lighting called layers - you can read all about them at this link. Here we can just focus on these two types: ambient and task. What designers usually do is providing too much overhead light (ambient) - resulting in energy waste - and not enough task lighting.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert task light 1

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert task light 2

When you work, the computer is already generating light so you don't need much more (no task light is required). Unless you're doing paperwork, in which case you should turn the desk lamp on.
On the other hand, we must consider that every one of us has different needs, for example, older people require more light. Therefore it's very important that every desk gets an adjustable task light and that the overhead light is kept to a minimum.

M. What about the actual desk? Any tips?

S. This is a main area of concern because the majority of the desks are simply too high for most. As a result, people are forced to conform their bodies to a fixed height by shrugging their shoulders, raising their chairs, and leaning forward to type and mouse. These awkward postures require excessive muscle effort and lead to discomfort and fatigue.

Ergonomics research has shown us that lowering the keyboards and angling them slightly away from the body reduces shoulder shrugging and helps to straighten the wrists. A non-expensive solution would be added to your desk a keyboard platform which in addition clears the space on the desk.

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert keyboard

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert monitor

Also, the monitor positioning is important: because we tend to look downward naturally at -15 degrees (never straight), the top line of text on the monitor should be no higher than eye level and at about an arm’s reach from the body. 

M. To sum up, what are the most important elements of a perfect work station?

S. There is four of them: hand&wrist posture, task seating, monitor positioning, and task lighting. And we covered all of them :)

can ergonomics improve health ask the expert sukhneet assee

Sukhneet Assee (also known as Sukhi) is an Associate Ergonomist for Humanscale and works within the consultancy division. She received a Masters of Science in Ergonomics with concentration to office ergonomics from the University of Nottingham. During her undergraduate career in product design, she gained experience in design, product evaluation, and compliance with standards. Sukhi is passionate about the design of human-environment interfaces, biomechanics, and how the built environment can contribute to worker health and performance. Sukhi has expertise in program and project management. She has also helped organisations develop proactive ergonomic programs that aim to minimise absenteeism, workplace injury, and encourage productivity. 

Workplace images are courtesy of Humanscale

Martina Pardo

Written by: Martina Pardo

I am Martina, an Italian designer based in London. I spend most of my time designing interiors or writing about it. I also love travelling. You may find me walking around the East End of London, drinking coffee and stopping at every single bookshop I bump into.


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