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5 adjustments you need to make to your desk right now

Yes, you can pass ergonomics 101 without buying a standing desk.
Image: A woman sits at her desk
Studies show that poor workstation ergonomics increase the risk of musculoskeletal problems.Torwaistudio / Shutterstock

Sitting at a desk right now? Take note of your body position. (Freeze! We see you adjusting your posture!)

Before the adjustment, we’re willing to bet you were hunched over, leaning on one arm rest or sitting with a leg propped underneath you.

You may be comfortable, but the truth is, many of our habits when it comes to sitting at our desks can actually have long-term health implications (not to mention cause energy slumps and back pain right now).

Ergonomics — or the science of designing the workplace — has become a popular buzzword over the past few years, as standing desks become increasingly trendy and more and more of your co-workers are replacing standard chairs with medicine balls.

According to the US Department of Labor, “ergonomics is the science of designing the job to fit the worker, rather than physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job.”

"The rise in popularity of ergonomics among office workers is stemming mainly from increased musculoskeletal symptoms associated with longer work durations and poor workstation design," says Jonathan Puleio, MS CPE, Managing Director at Humanscale. "Computer users are simply responding to the pain and discomfort they are experiencing while they are at work. A renewed focus on promoting health and well-being in the workplace has also spurred interest in ergonomics and proper workstation setup."

But while it may be an increasingly popular area of focus, “most people do the opposite,” says Puleio. “They conform their body to the work station and this is what leads to discomfort and fatigue.”

You likely don’t even realize how much subconscious adjusting you are doing to fit yourself to your space: You reach for your mouse and keyboard, raise your chair up to be more eye level with the monitor and lean forward to better read your screen. But each one of these movements is putting your physical health at risk.

Ergonomics is the science of designing the job to fit the worker, rather than physically forcing the worker’s body to fit the job.

Studies show that poor workstation ergonomics increase the risk of musculoskeletal problems and symptoms.

"There are several health related issues that can be linked to poor ergonomics," says Puleio. "Prolonged sitting and static postures have been associated with cardiovascular and circulatory diseases, weight gain and low back disorder. Nerve and tendon related musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and epicondylitis can arise from awkward postures and repetitive motion associated with keyboard and mouse use. Monitor position can contribute to neck and shoulder pain. Regardless of the source, discomfort and pain in the workplace reduces worker performance and results in lowered job satisfaction."

Scary, considering you likely spend 8 hours a day sitting (improperly) at your desk.

Luckily there are some very simple adjustments you can make right now that will make your desk-life a whole lot safer — and maybe even give your productivity a boost.


Studies show that specific seated postures can lower the risk of musculoskeletal symptoms and musculoskeletal disorders. So how exactly should we be sitting?

“The standard desktop correlates to the elbow height of a 6’4” tall male,” says Puleio. “What this causes is a situation where people will sit unexpectedly high in their chair to reach the keyboard and mouse and this creates a host of potential health risks.”

"The primary challenge with current task chairs is that they are too complex for users to benefit from their adjustability," he adds. "Results from a recent Cornell University research study on task seating showed that less than 5 percent of those surveyed could correctly identify the tension control knob. Even when participants could correctly identify a particular chair control, less than 50 percent reported ever using the control."

Less than 5 percent of those surveyed could correctly identify the tension control knob [on their desk chair].

Take the time to learn how to adjust your chair. Puleio recommends raising or lowering your seat until your thighs are parallel to the floor with your feet flat on the floor (or on a footrest if your feet cannot rest comfortably). You should aim to have two inches of clearance between the back of your knees and the edge of your seat. "The seat pan should be adjusted to allow at least 2 inches of clearance behind the users knees and the armrests should be adjusted no higher than seated elbow height," he adds.

Puleio also notes that many people lock their backrest which is a major faux-pas. “The backrest of the chair should be unlocked and properly tensioned to promote movement,” he says. “Certain chairs self-adjust to user’s body weight, so you don’t have to worry.”

Be sure to lean back in your chair, with your backrest sitting comfortably in the small of your back, to allow the backrest to support your upper body.


People tend to be “accommodating their body to the desk instead of vice versa,” says Puleio. “It’s common for users to lean forward the entire day. What happens is that you break contact with the back rest. People are quick to blame their chairs, but it’s not a chair design problem.”

Instead, he recommends re-evaluating your keyboard.

Standard desk heights are too high for 95 percent of our population.

"Standard 29.5” desk heights are too high for 95 percent of our population. As such, users tend to sit high in their chairs and shrug their shoulders the entire work day. Worse, they tend to lean forward placing their bodies at increased risk for low back disorder," Puleio says. "The ideal position for the keyboard is in your lap, similar to how you would position a laptop. Your shoulders should be relaxed, your wrists should be straight and your palms should be supported. Bringing your keyboard and mouse closer to your body will allow you to offload body weight to the backrest of your chair and should lead to an immediate improvement in overall comfort. To achieve an even more neutral posture, consider using an articulating keyboard support to angle the keyboard away from your body."

If your keyboard is sitting on top of your desk, Puleio does have a few suggestions for reducing wrist strain. Invest in a palm support that sits in front of the keyboard, and wrest the fleshy part of our palm on it when typing. He also says to always flatten the tabs on the underside of your keyboard that prop it up at an angle — ultimately causing you to flex your wrists upward. The goal is always to keep your wrists straight.


Yes, even how you hold and manipulate your mouse can influence your comfort level and risk of injury.

"Traditional mouse designs promote wrist anchoring (contact stress) and the side to side bending of the wrists (ulnar and radial deviation). These postural risk factors result in fluid pressure increases inside the carpal tunnel and have been linked to an increased risk of injury," says Puleio.

He recommends investing in a mouse that has an integrated palm support, which eliminates the need to anchor your wrist on the desk, allowing you to naturally move the mouse with your lower arm and shoulder, while keeping your wrist straight.

Until you can get your hands on a mouse with a palm support, the experts at Humanscale recommend positioning your mouse close to the keyboard or over the numeric keypad to minimize reaching. "Avoid anchoring your wrist on the desk. Instead, glide the heel of your palm over the mousing surface and use your entire arm to mouse,” they add.


The improper height and position of your monitor is another factor that causes us to lean forward at our desks.

First, position your monitor so that it is at least an arm’s length away.

"Most users position their monitors too high relative to their natural -15 degree downward gaze," says Puleio. "To optimize viewing comfort, the top line of text should be positioned at or slightly below seated eye height. The monitor should be angled slightly away from the body such that your natural downward viewing gaze is about perpendicular to the surface of the monitor.


Adding a light to your desk isn’t just a means of decorating — it’s actually healthier for your eyes. Experts say a desk light is essential for viewing hard copy documents, as it helps prevent glare and Computer Vision Syndrome — a condition affecting up to 90 percent of computer users which causes eyestrain, eye fatigue, dry eyes, light sensitivity, blurred vision, headaches and other symptoms.

In fact, as we get older the amount of light contrast required increases dramatically.

“We take lighting for granted; people underestimate the amount of light needed for a task,” Puleio says. "Lighting requirements are highly dependent on the age of the user. In our early to mid 40s, our eyes change dramatically and we all develop a condition called presbyopia, characterized by our inability to focus on near-field objects. By the time we reach our 60s, we require 250 percent more contrast to view the same documents as we did in our 20s."

The key is to choose a task light on an arm that you can manipulate — versus a table lamp that gives off ambient light.

By the time we reach our 60s, we require 250 percent more contrast to view the same documents as we did in our 20s.

"Controllable task lights allow workers to adjust light levels based on their individual requirement," Puleio adds. "When using a task light, the ambient light levels can be reduced to optimize viewing conditions for computer monitors. Task and ambient lighting schemes have been shown to improve visual comfort and reduce energy consumption by up to 40 percent."

Be sure to position the task light to the side opposite your writing hand, and shine it on paper documents but away from computer monitors to reduce glare.

Take it one step further

Invest in a standing desk: There’s a reason why so many of your co-workers are making the swap. Data shows strong evidence that intermittent standing increases productivity through a reduction in work break time as it leads to fewer and shorter breaks throughout the day. In fact, non-standers took an average of 47 percent more work breaks and each work break was 56 percent longer than that of the standers. Over a three-day period, non-standers took over twice as much total time on breaks from work as the standers did — clearly having an effect on productivity. Consider putting in a request at the office for a standing desk; more and more employers are making them available to their employees.

Schedule breaks often: If you aren’t standing at your desk, it’s vital to schedule those work breaks into your daily routine. Experts at Humanscale recommends taking two or three 30- to 60-second breaks each hour to allow your body to recover from periods of repetitive stress. You may think that more breaks equal less work getting done — but you’d be wrong. The productivity app DeskTime found that the highest-performing 10 percent of workers tended to work for 52 consecutive minutes followed by a 17-minute break. So setting a timer to stand up and get away from your desk for a bit may lead to getting more work done, in less time. If 17 minutes is too long to step away from your Outlook, studies show that even brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve your ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods. May we also suggest drinking more water? Not only will you be getting up to fill your bottle, but you’ll likely also make more frequent trips to the bathroom, ensuring you’re getting up from your desk throughout the day.

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