Nobody really teaches you how to sit or stand at work, says Alan Hedge, a professor at Cornell University’s department of Design and Environmental Analysis and a leading researcher in ergonomics. And that’s why so many of us wreak havoc on our necks, backs, and the rest of our bodies — which not only feels terrible, but reduces performance. We talked with Hedge about the basics of ergonomics, and why a well-tailored desk leads to a more focused mind.
THRIVE GLOBAL: How big of a difference can proper ergonomics and environment make for performance at work?
ALAN HEDGE: The answer is huge. We now have a lot of case studies on the difference in performance before and after a good ergonomic intervention, and the average is around 17 percent better performance. Studies on sit-stand working showing 40 percent increases in performance.
TG: How does our performance suffer with poor ergonomics?
If people aren’t working in a good ergonomic posture, over time the body fatigues and it starts to be uncomfortable. It’s like if you’re sitting on the bleachers at a sports game. It starts to get uncomfortable, and you get distracted by signals from your body that are saying, “This body is not in a comfortable posture.” So people start to fidget more — they’ll lean forward, they’ll lean back, they’ll wriggle from side to side. It’s harder to concentrate, because all of those activities are distracting your brain from focusing on what you should be looking at.
The same is true for computer work. If you’re uncomfortable when you go to work, then, over the course of a day, that discomfort will become greater and greater.
On the other hand, if you come to work and you’re comfortable in how you’re working, you can concentrate on your job.
TG: In an almost mathematical sense, you’re able to invest more of your intention and on the work itself rather than trying to adjust your posture.
AH: Absolutely. It’s like if you were trying to concentrate on something, and somebody was poking you with their finger every 30 seconds. It would get really annoying, and you wouldn’t be able to concentrate on what you were doing. If you can’t concentrate on what you’re doing, you’ll never become really skilled at doing what you’re doing.
TG: What are some easy things that people miss in setting up a workspace?
AH: The thing that people almost always miss is they adjust their bodies to the position of the equipment, instead of adjusting the position of the equipment for an optimal posture. For sitting, the optimal posture is when you can sit back in your chair in a more relaxed position. Invariably, that’s not what you see when you go into a workplace. You see people hunched over their computers, which does a number of things to your body. It more than doubles the compressive forces on the lower back, it reduces the volume of the lungs so there’s less oxygen getting to the brain, it puts your neck in a worse posture compressing some of the nerves that go down the arms to the hands. It’s much more fatiguing.
Think about what happens when you go to the movies. Movie theaters don’t have you sitting on bleachers because they know you’d never get to the end of the movie. They usually have pretty well-designed, comfortable seating. They understand that comfort is an important component to not distracting you. But people ignore that at work.
TG: Why do people miss all this?
AH: Who teaches you how you should be sitting or working? The answer is nobody. We all just assume that people will do it. So we need to educate people about how they could be working, and then make sure they have the right equipment.
For example, if you’re working on a laptop, it’s impossible for you to do this unless you put that laptop into a docking station and separate the screen from the keyboard. That’s because when the keyboards are at a good distance from your body, if it’s attached to the screen, the screen is too close and too low, so you get an awkward neck posture. By being able to detach that puts the screen in the optimal position.
TG: What are some good first steps for people who are trying to become more ergonomically aware?
AH: The first thing is to pay attention to your body. If any bit of your body is hurting, aching, feeling uncomfortable in some way, then look at why might that be.
Simple things like bringing your mouse closer in to your body so that you can work in a more relaxed way without straining, paying attention to how easily you can see the computer screen, how far away it is from you. Sit back in your chair, hold your arm out — if your middle finger is just about touching the center of the screen, that’s going to be a good viewing distance to work from. It’s a matter of listening to your body and then looking at how you have things arranged.