Personalizing Ergonomics: 4 Steps to Creating Your Optimal Workspace

Ergonomics isn’t one size fits all. Use these tips to adapt ergonomic tools and techniques to your unique work style and needs.

Back pain, tendinitis and other occupational injuries account for one-third of all days away from work, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Repetitive movements and long bouts of sedentary work in office environments can contribute to these injuries.

Using ergonomic furniture and work tools is an important first step for preventing work injuries. In addition, customizing your use of these ergonomic tools and your workspace is also essential for supporting your body and your movements.

Carolyn Sommerich, associate professor at The Ohio State University and director of the school’s Engineering Laboratory for Human Factors/Ergonomics/Safety, provides advice on how you can personalize ergonomics to optimize their health benefits.

Use these four tips to tailor ergonomics to your needs:

1. Apply Ergonomic Best Practices

Understanding basic ergonomic principles and best practices will provide a strong foundation for your customization efforts.

Important workspace ergonomic fundamentals include:

  • Adjusting your chair so it supports the natural curve of your spine. Your vertebrae should be stacked, and you should be leaning back just slightly. Your knees should be about level or just lower than your hips, and your feet should be flat on the floor.
  • Arranging your desk so that the items you use most are within easy reach. Below your desk, there should be clearance for your thighs and knees so that they aren’t rubbing against it.
  • Placing your monitor arm’s length away from you, with the top of the screen at or slightly below eye level. If you use two monitors, arrange them side-by-side, with your primary monitor directly in front of you and the secondary monitor just off center.
  • Positioning your keyboard and mouse in a way that keeps your elbows close to your sides and your arms at or just below a 90-degree angle. Your wrists should be reasonably straight — not bent up or down.

2. Identify Ergonomic Add-Ons

Once you have the fundamentals in place, making your work setup more ergonomically friendly may require a few adjustments. For example, if your chair offers insufficient support for your lower back, consider a back support or cushion. If your feet don’t touch the floor when your chair is at the proper height, look into ordering a footrest, or place a book or box under your feet that allows your thighs to be parallel with your desk while your feet are flat.

If you work primarily on a laptop, creating a healthy ergonomic setup might take a little more effort, says Sommerich. Using an adjustable laptop stand can raise the device so that the screen is at a proper height — or even propping it up on a couple of books can be a temporary fix. Invest in a separate keyboard and mouse to keep your arms at a 90-degree angle and your shoulders from hunching.

“If you use a keyboard tray, be careful to not position it so that the keyboard and mouse are too low, as that can overextend your wrists,” Sommerich cautions. If your chair and desk are adjustable, find the positioning that lets you use your keyboard comfortably without straining your wrists or shoulders.

3. Test Adjustable Items

Just because a work chair, desk or other item offers lots of adjustability, it doesn’t automatically guarantee a good fit. That’s why it’s important to always try things out before committing, Sommerich says.

She recalls working with a group of employees that had just received new adjustable chairs. “They were really nice chairs, and they even came in two sizes,” she says. “But, the seat pan rolled up on the sides and was very uncomfortable for some people.” When evaluating items, also consider sturdiness and range of motion, as these factors will significantly impact ease of use and comfort.

4. Don’t Forget Lighting

Ergonomics brings to mind chairs, desks and technology, but the right lighting also plays an important role in health. Eye strain, headaches and fatigue are a few signs that your lighting may not be quite right.

To the extent possible, tailor your lighting arrangement to suit your needs. For instance, if you read paper documents at your desk, choose a desk or floor lamp that shines the extra light you need to work comfortably. Be sure it provides sufficient coverage for your work surface — if you tend to spread papers out on your desk, for example, you might look for a desk light with a long or adjustable arm.

Check the brightness of your computer screen to be sure it is properly set. As a rule of thumb, it should match the brightness of the surrounding room, and not look like a light source. Use the “20-20-20” guideline recommended by the American Academy of Ophthalmology to give your eyes regular breaks: Every 20 minutes, look away from your screen for 20 seconds, focusing on an object at least 20 feet away. Web-based tools such as Rest Your Eyes and Protect Your Vision can remind you to do this.

No matter how ergonomically sound your setup is, it’s important to get up and move around regularly, says Sommerich. “No arrangement is going to be truly healthful if you’re in one place for eight hours a day,” she says.

Use some of your screen breaks to walk away from your desk, or to stretch your arms and back. Creating new habits will go a long way to keeping you healthy at work.