Updated: May 12
It may be time for an ergonomic evaluation. Most people don’t think of office work as being particularly dangerous. But sitting in the same position, making the same basic motions, day after day, can take a toll on your body.
This is even more problematic when you’re working from home. You might not be using an ideal desk or chair, or you may develop bad posture habits without realizing it. An ergonomic assessment can provide you with the knowledge and insight you need to optimize your workstation – and your posture. Let’s take a closer look!
What Are Ergonomics?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ergonomics as: “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.”[*] That’s pretty broad, so let’s look at some concrete examples.
Take a look at your computer monitor. If it’s too high or too low, you’ll have to tilt your neck, causing your muscles will get stiff and sore. The same is true for desks of different heights. The laptop riser that’s perfect on your office desk will be at a different height if you use it at home.
What Is an Ergonomic Assessment or Evaluation?
An ergonomic assessment is an evaluation of your working environment. The goal is to determine the level of risk for multiple issues like acute or chronic musculoskeletal pain. It’s also to identify specific risks and come up with ways to mitigate them. After a thorough assessment, the workplace should be safer, with fewer health and safety risks. [*]
Traditionally, ergonomic assessments have been paid for by companies. HR departments are constantly looking for ways to reduce risks and improve the overall wellness of their workers. A more ergonomic workplace can reduce injury claims, make workers more productive, and improve morale.
But now that you’re working at home, you still want to work in an ergonomic environment. Injuring yourself is no fun, nor is getting stiff or cramped. It’s worth paying for an assessment yourself if only for improved comfort!
Related: 5 Standing Desk Benefits + Best Standing Desk Picks for 2023
Benefits of Ergonomics
OSHA lists many benefits of ergonomics, most of them for employers who want healthy employees. But there are also many benefits for you. Reducing ergonomic risk factors can lower your risk of injury, reduce work-related pain, and make you more productive. [*]
Ergonomic Risk Factors and Common Injuries
Workplace ergonomic risks vary from profession to profession. For example, flooring installers are on their knees a lot and should wear knee pads to avoid short-term discomfort and long-term injury. For this reason, it would be impossible to list every possible injury risk. That said, here are some of the most common dangers when working from home.
Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts for three months or longer. The pain can be anywhere in the body, and it can be constant or sporadic. [*]
Chronic pain is not the same thing as acute pain, which happens as the result of an injury. When you sprain your ankle or burn your finger, it’s going to hurt! But when the injury heals, the pain goes away.
Chronic pain, on the other hand, can happen for no apparent reason. Or it can result from an injury, but continue to linger for months after your body has healed.
This type of pain can be a huge problem not just for your work, but also for your other activities. It keeps on going while you cook, drive, and spend time with your family. If the pain is bad enough, it can cause depression and difficulty sleeping, which only worsen the pain. It can become a vicious cycle.
Related: 8 Simple Ways To Prioritize Self-Care at Work
Back and Neck Pain
Back and neck pain can be chronic or acute. It’s common in all kinds of professions, from construction to nursing, and is often caused by frequent heavy lifting. But back pain can also be caused by sitting in a less-than-optimal position. [*]
If your job tasks revolve around a mouse and keyboard, you’re probably sitting most of the time. This can cause stiffness, which can make it hard to move around after you get up. In addition, stiff muscles can make it hard to maintain a good posture, which further increases the risk of injury.
Neck pain is another concern for white-collar or remote workers. In many situations, the monitor is either too high or too low. As a result, it’s impossible to maintain a neutral neck position, and neck pain is the result. Many people wrongly attribute their neck pain to a poor sleeping position. They never realize that good ergonomic practices during the daytime could solve their problems.
Poor ergonomics can come in all different varieties. Maybe you like to work on your laptop in bed and prop your heck up with pillows. Maybe you tend to hunch over or lean to one side on your armrests. It’s oftentimes something you’re doing unconsciously. Otherwise, you would be doing things differently already!
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are injuries that affect the bones, muscles, nerves, tendons, cartilage, joints, and spinal discs. They include sprains, strains, and muscle tears, which are negligible risks for a white-collar worker. Other risks include:
Back pain – Back pain is one of the top 10 reasons for hospital visits. In 5% to 10% of people, the pain becomes chronic. [*]
Hernias – Another minor concern for office workers. But if you’re not hitting the gym and keeping your abs strong, your risk increases.
Carpal tunnel syndrome – Carpal tunnel is common for people who do a large amount of typing. It affects nearly 2 million Americans, and there are more than 300,000 carpal tunnel surgeries performed each year. [*]
Arthritis – Arthritis is a catch-all term for more than 100 inflammatory conditions that affect your joints and surrounding tissues. Different versions affect different joints and can be more or less severe. All in all, approximately 46 million Americans suffer from some form of arthritis. [*]
Repetitive Stress Injuries
Repetitive stress injuries (RSIs) are a type of MSD that are caused by performing repetitive tasks – carpal tunnel is one of the most common types of RSI. Wrist tendons become inflamed, which puts pressure on nerves passing through your wrist. Tennis elbow is another common variety, where something similar happens in the elbow. [*]
Since desk work requires constantly repeating the same movements, it can frequently lead to RSI. A rapid upper limb assessment and other good ergonomic practices can mitigate this danger.
Ganglion cysts are growths that sometimes appear on joints or inside your wrists and ankles. Many are painless, but most cause at least mild discomfort and some are outright excruciating. [*]
In most cases, the cysts will eventually go away on their own. But in other cases, they continue to linger. If they’re pinching a nerve, this can be debilitating. You may need to have surgery in order to remove the cyst. Even then, it may reappear in the future.
Fatigue is exhaustion that goes beyond the ordinary. Most of us sometimes feel stressed or overworked. True fatigue is a state of unmitigated exhaustion that lasts for days, weeks, or longer. It becomes hard to focus, and you have no energy. Engaged employees become withdrawn during Zoom meetings or even start to fall asleep. It can even impact your emotional health. [*]
Fatigue isn’t a direct result of bad ergonomics, but it can be a secondary result. For example, suppose you’ve developed tendonitis that makes it hard to get a good night’s sleep. Over time, the lack of sleep could lead to fatigue, which in turn increases the risk that you’ll injure yourself further.
Related: How to Relieve Muscle Soreness vs Pain: What's the Difference?
How These Injuries Are Prevented
So, how can ergonomic assessments help with these issues? When a physical therapist works with clients, whether in person or through virtual physical therapy, there are two ways to improve ergonomics.
The first involves the elimination of environmental factors that could pose a risk. A good ergonomic assessment will evaluate the work environment for anything that could encourage poor posture or other dangers to your health.
The second is through individualized recommendations on the optimal positioning, posture, techniques, ergonomics and equipment to minimize injury. These assessments are integral to assessing the needs of individual workers.
Medical Disclaimer: The information on this site, including text, graphics, images, and other material, is provided solely for informational purposes and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your specific condition.