Sensible advice for aches, pains & injuries

Unconventional Ergonomics

Five creative ergonomics tips you don’t hear as much about as the usual stuff

updated (first published 2004)
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about

Ergonomics is the science of arranging or designing things for efficient use, mostly as prevention for neck pain, low back pain, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Unfortunately, ergonomics is usually interpreted unimaginatively, with the result that most people think that ergonomics is just about choosing office chairs and changing the tilt on your keyboard. Lots of things can be said about office chairs and the tilt of your keyboard — but it’s only the tip of the ergonomics iceberg.

A comic strip, 3 frames, showing an office evolving from poor ergonomics in the first frame, to a fancy modern workspace with advanced ergonomics in the second frame, to an bizarre and absurd workstation in the third frame.

What a perfect comic strip I found! This exactly illustrates what I’m trying to say: that conventional ergonomics solutions may be missing the point, and often get out of hand.

What discussions about ergonomics usually miss is that long work days in a chair are just a fundamentally bad idea — no matter how good your chair is. Ergonomics should not be focussed on ways of making people more comfortable with a bad situation — almost a conspiracy against workers — but rather on improving the situation. Conventional ergonomics, when “arranging things for efficient use” — tends to exclude the most important thing in your workstation: you!

The consequences of ergonomics that ignore you range from the irritating to the traumatic. This fascinating collection of videos of ergonomic disasters has some examples.

This article offers a quick look at some ideas from a better, more worker-o-centric kind of ergonomics, and “arranging” a few things other than your workstation.

What were the bodies like on the beach? Ugly and white and ruined by offices.

Leonard Cohen, The Favourite Game

Tip No. 1: Be active

Without a doubt, the single most problematic “design” feature of most of my client’s lives is a lack of frequent and diverse activity throughout the working day. If you are glued to your desk for hours at a time, getting up and moving around for at least one minute in every fifteen will make a significant difference in your health. This is called “microbreaking,” if you want the buzzword.

Is this ergonomics? Damn straight it is: if ergonomics is the science of arranging things for efficient use, then what’s more important than arranging yourself? Right out of your chair! Your employer’s short-sighted priority may be to have you in your chair as much as possible — in the name of efficiency! A better priority is to have you moving around so that you don’t ruin your body in your chair — which would be terribly inefficient!

Tip No. 2: Choose good shoes

I can’t imagine a better example of how misplaced ergonomics priorities can be than the secretary who practically goes to war with her employer to get the right chair, keyboard, mouse and desk … but wears high heels. Of course, men are generally less stubborn about this issue, but we also need to pay more attention to the quality of our shoes.

Insensible footwear is probably a culprit in a wide variety of conditions from head to toe. I do not believe that they are an unmitigated disaster. In fact, there’s evidence that women adapt reasonably well to high heels. But don’t force your body to adapt to a chronic stress if you can live without the fashion option. If you’re troubleshooting a pain problem, losing the heels is an easy and worthwhile experiment. So switch to sensible shoes. As ergonomics advice goes, good shoes are much better bang for your buck than the right office chair — at least as a worthwhile experiment. Good shoes:

Tip No. 3: Help your eyes

Surprised? You shouldn’t be! An obsolete prescription for your glasses is one of the most common causes of tension headaches. An update can work small miracles. Sunglasses can also provide relief from eye strain. One client provided a less obvious example recently: he wears trifocals, and must tip his head back to view his computer screen through the narrow bottom viewing area of the glasses, a postural disaster. Solution? A pair of reading glasses — computer glasses, that is. Ask your optometrist for other ideas about how to ease eye strain.

Tip No. 4: Use a chair, a stool and a wobble cushion

Most ergonomics consultants — and ergonomic office chair manufacturers — would have you believe that what you really need is an especially good chair. But consider: do you really want a chair that encourages you to remain seated in it? The real hazard of modern life for most people is stillness itself, not the position in which you are still. All positions are a bad idea in six-hour doses, no matter how ergonomically correct. I have gone so far down this line of thought as to wonder if it would actually be a good idea to work in an uncomfortable chair, for the obvious reason that I would be less likely to sit in it for long stretches!

This tip is actually compatible with conventional wisdom, however. An uncomfortable chair might discourage me from sitting in it, but I wouldn’t get much work done. As long as I have to work I would like to have a good ergonomic chair, and I recommend the same to you — buy the best, it’s a lot cheaper than pain — and there’s lots of great information about that out there. There, that should keep the ergonomic chair lobby happy.

What you won’t hear anywhere else, though, is that you should also get any old cheap stool or second chair, as well as a wobble cushion such as a Disco ‘O’ Sit or Sissel Balance Fit, and then alternate between four sitting methods throughout your day:

Now you’ve got some variety, and that alone is worth as much as the best chair money can buy, for a fraction of the price.

Tip No. 5: Get a headset telephone

The ubiquitous handset telephone is a major troublemaker, yet is routinely ignored in the average egonomics assessment! Headset telephone technology has become much more effective and affordable in the last three years, and of course headsets are standard for people who work in call centres where the issue is paramount. Meanwhile, Joe Office Worker is on the phone almost as much, but usually pinching a handset between ear and shoulder — and you’re worried about your chair?

If you spend a lot of time on the phone — and approximately more than an hour a day would qualify as a lot — you can’t afford not to use a headset. Based on my personal experience, I recommend that you avoid phones designed as headset telephones, and instead simply purchase a good cordless telephone and plug a good headset into it. You can find sturdy headsets at Radio Shack.

And as a bonus, here is a quick review of some conventional ergonomics advice …

Bonus Tip: Improve your computer work station

There are many well-established basic rules for how to use a computer to minimize repetitive strain injuries and fatigue. IBM publishes an excellent guide (see Healthy Computing) to setting up your work station. It seems like almost everyone seems to need to do this. Even I rearranged my desk when I read up on the subject! Here are some of the highlights …

About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

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