Businesswoman in Pain

Everything I Learned About Ergonomics as a Kid

When I was a kid, there were a few things that my dad would constantly remind me of. Every day, I was bound to get one of these stern reminders along with a short lecture.

Don't sit so close to the TV! You're going to go blind!

Sit up straight! Don't slouch in that chair or you're going to have back problems when you're old!

Turn on the lights when you're reading!

Take a break from reading every once in a while to rest your eyes!

Now as an adult I find it ironic that I often spend over half of my waking hours sitting within 1-2 ft from my computer monitor and doing everything I can to ward off the other dangers of bad ergonomics. Two converging factors have made ergonomics an ever-growing problem in this generation: 1) people are always online and 2) portable computing devices have allowed people to use their computer anywhere. This new generation feels more comfortable texting than talking; and if you don't have a Facebook account (or some other presence in an online community) you might as well not really exist. About 85% of my colleagues use a laptop as their main computer, and a growing number (especially in management and sales) are fully remote workers who may or may not actually have an assigned desk. Bob Dylan was right, "The Times They Are a-changin". 

The Laptop Dilemma

When using a computer, you typically want the monitor to be around eye level to encourage good posture and the keyboard should allow your forearms to remain parallel to the floor and elbows at the sides. The problem is that the monitor and the keyboard on a laptop are typically joined together, and it is impossible to position both the keyboard and the monitor properly ... at least not at the same time. This article provides some tips for laptop usage that will help minimize the risk of serious ergonomic injuries. 

Below is an entertaining video that will begin stimulating some thoughts about creative ways to improve laptop ergonomics. Though some of the examples are for the home (and for kids), all the tips are relevant for the modern-day mobile worker. 

Portability and Posture

Bad posture often results in neck, back, wrist and shoulder pains. Over long periods of time, these repetitive stresses can lead to serious injuries that may even prevent us from doing our jobs. Here are some tips about laptop usage and posture:

  1. Don't use laptops in settings that promote really bad posture (e.g. the bed, the sofa, the car, or bean bags). These places almost guarantee that your posture will be bad. 
  2. Adjust the height and angle of the display to allow the neck to remain as straight as possible. 
  3. Adjust your seating (the chair and/or footrest) to allow the keyboard to be at a comfortable typing height. You never want to be typing with your wrists arced upwards.

The Keyboard and the Monitor

People don't realize this, but the keyboard and monitor positions are often what cause people to have poor posture when using laptops and netbooks. Here are some tips related to the keyboard and monitor:

  1. Whenever  possible, use an external keyboard and monitor that is adjusted to the proper height. This resolves the laptop dilemma and is the number one thing you can do to prevent ergonomic injuries that result from laptop usage. The other advantage of using a full-sized external keyboard is that it allows for a more natural shoulder and wrist position. 
  2. If you have a desk, use a docking station. Some monitor stands also act as a docking station. This also makes it very convenient since your mouse, your printer, your monitor, and keyboard can all be set up properly every time you dock your laptop.
  3. If you don't have access to an external monitor, tilt the laptop monitor to improve posture.
  4. Excessive glare on the monitor will increase the strain to your eyes. Simple things like closing the curtains or working out of direct sunlight can drastically decrease glare. 
  5. If you must be on the road often, consider setting the monitor to eye level (with books or other objects) and using a portable keyboard that you always keep in your laptop bag. There are numberous options for portable computer keyboards.

Find that Mouse

I use a 10" netbook when I travel, and I always want to travel light and avoid carrying additional items that I don't really need. The power cord must come in the bag, but items like the mouse seem the simplest to just leave behind. Even the worse mouse is far superior to the mini-joystick or touchpad on most laptops (the Multi-Touch trackpad  of the 11" and 13" MacBook Air might be one of the few exceptions to this). 

Why do many laptop users not use a mouse then?

  1. They don't want to carry it. If you're carrying an ultra-slick netbook with a very thin case, why would you want this mouse protruding out the side of the case? And what about the wires?
  2. They're too lazy to plug it in. It takes time to dig out the USB cable, untangle it from the power supply cable, and then plug it in to your sleek new laptop. 
  3. There's no space to use a mouse. On the train or an airplane, there may not physically be space to use a mouse. 

People are flexible and can become quite proficient at using the touchpads and the mini-joystick; but most people realize that they can work faster and minimize strain by using a mouse.  Even a small portable mouse is better than no mouse. It should be used whenever possible; and if it isn't possible to use a mouse, it is also likely that you're using a laptop in an environment that is not conducive to good ergonomics. It's best to limit your use to simpler tasks like reading and web surfing during these times. 

One travel mouse that I think is very well designed is the Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse. It folds flat so that it fits nicely into your laptop bag, but it also curves when opened for better usability. 

Microsoft Arc Touch Mouse
Credit: Amazon

On the Road Again

For the mobile road warrior, this entertaining video below has some helpful tips for working with a laptop while traveling for business. Optimal ergonomic conditions are often impractical while traveling, but there are many practical choices you can make to reduce the chances of ergonomic injuries (carpal tunnel syndrome, neck pain, back pain, shoulder pain and other repetitive stress injuries). 

Some Closing Thoughts

In this information age where our lives often revolve around the input and digestion of information, good ergonomics has moved from "good practice" to "essential" for those who want to prevent pain and injury. I'll leave you with a few bits of advice:

  1. Sit up straight when you work! Keep good posture.
  2. Adjust your environment to work as comfortably as possible.
  3. Invest in a good chair, a good keyboard, a nice computer desk and an external monitor for your home or business office.
  4. Don't sit at the computer all day. Take frequent breaks (15-20 mins) and give your body and eyes some rest.

You may also have some innovative ideas from your frequent travels and daily laptop use so feel free to comment and share those ideas with others.