Let’s not pretend like we haven’t heard about it before. It seems to be everywhere from chairs to can openers. Ergonomics. Find a comfortable seat, (Possibly your ergonomic chair?) or don’t because you should be standing (Standing desk?) and read on to see why healthy and ergonomics don't go hand in hand.
First, what is ergonomics?
The terms ‘ergonomics’ and ‘human factors’ can be used together, although ‘ergonomics’ is often used in relation to the physical parts of the environment, such as workstations and control panels, while ‘human factors’ is often used to describe the wider system in which people work. On this site, we generally use the term that fits most closely with the research or the industry that we are discussing. - Ergonomics.org
Ergonomics brings together knowledge from anatomy and physiology, psychology, engineering, and statistics to see that the designs of the given object go well with the abilities of people and minimize their limitations. We don’t expect people to change how they work, so ergonomics came in and made everything more comfortable, so people could work more productively.
Where did ergonomics come from?
The word ergonomics comes from the Greek word “ergon” which means work and “nomos” which means laws. It’s essentially the “laws of work” or “science of work”. Let’s start at 400 BC, Ancient Greek civilization used what we now consider ergonomic principles in the design of tools, jobs, and workplaces.
Fast forward to 1700 BC, Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini wrote a medical journal about complaints from his patients titled, 'De Morbis Artificum,’ which translates to, ‘Diseases of Workers.’ The journal detailed a variety of injuries such as weaver’s bottom, writer’s cramp, telegrapher’s wrist, and housemaid’s knee, outlining how these injuries relate to working environments and the occupations of his patients.
You’d be surprised but throughout the years, there were many people who tried to change the way we worked but their ideas were thrown to the side. For example, In the 50s, Robert Propst and George Nelson’s "Action Office" designed furniture into modular systems, with partitions that could be shifted depending on the task, allowing employees to work in collaboration and dial back the counterproductive system of private offices. A few cutting-edge workplaces adopted this model, but ultimately it tanked. And worse, it was shunned. Instead of setting up flexible, “flower petal-shaped work pods”, adjoined at 120-degree angles to encourage collaboration, most companies settled for the Action Office’s design and installed acres of partitions at right-angles, marking the creation of the “cube farm”.
In the ’80s, Galen Cranz and Peter Opsvik, to name a few, tried to change things up by pointing out that our addiction to sitting all day in the name of productivity was hurting our bodies. They argued that if we could rethink sitting and chair design, we could all work with less pain and injury. In her 1984 book, The Chair, Cranz wrote:
“Short of sitting on a spike, you can’t do much worse than the standard office chair.”
Her ideas were considered out of the ordinary and were quickly ignored.
When did all of this become serious?
In 2014, endocrinologist James Levine broke through all this noise with his anti-sitting manifesto,
“Get Up: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.” He coined the term “sitting disease” and explained that no amount of exercise could counteract the effects of sitting for eight hours a day.
This caught fire with the media and the public started paying attention to the idea that sitting all day was the source of not just our pain, but of chronic, life-threatening illnesses. Suddenly, people like Cranz and Opsvik who had been telling the world about sitting had a leg to stand on. Scientists quickly revisited their ideas, and that’s when the world started changing their thinking. Many people took this to heart and replaced sitting with standing all day, not knowing this was damaging their joints and started developing varicose veins.
People became aware that sitting all day was the source of the problem and soon found that moving is what matters.
Scientific evidence is growing: Nico Pronk, a professor at the Harvard T.H, Chan School of Public Health and chief science officer at Health Partners, says the most important economic engine we have is
”People coming to work and taking good care of themselves so they can be optimally productive. It’s a business strategy. When there’s a culture that provides a workplace that’s full of joy, when people like coming to work, that’s very good for the health of the company.”
Not all ergonomic furniture is created equal
There’s a realistic chance you’re reading this while sitting in your very own ergonomic chair. The seat feels like a marshmallow, hugging your torso and has perfect lumbar support. The back is thick and the armrests are adjustable. You’re thinking "I’m at 90-degrees. My arms, hips, knees, are all at that sharp right angle" is the best way to sit. Well, you're not slouching, right?
Despite all the hype, ergonomic might not mean what you think it does. We’ve been fooled into believing that ergonomic and good for you are the same.
The best ergonomic chairs engage your core and allow proper blood flow, which is often restricted while in a 90-degree sitting position. Let’s look back at that definition again, “the study of people’s efficiency in the workplace”. Unfortunately, there is no mention of “good for you”. The only purpose is to create a more efficient work environment. We’ve all been told over and over how sitting up straight is better for you and while that’s not completely wrong, sitting upright for long periods of time, does put stress on your back and spine. Some people suggest sitting at 135-degree angles, but that can be slightly too relaxing, so we found a happy medium, 100-110-degree angles were the sweet spot.
Some great workplace ergonomic options
So now that we’ve completely scared you from sitting, we’re going to give you some ways to have a healthier sitting and standing experience.
Let’s start with your desk.
The ideal workspace is all about flexibility and movement as we discussed earlier, so this is where adjustable-height desks come in. With these, you can lower them for sitting time and raise them for standing time. When we start to lean, stretch, and fidget, it’s time to take a break from sitting. Your body is going to thank you at the end of the day when you have more energy and your work was ultra-productive.
Next, is your chair.
Since sitting is required for some part of your day, there needs to be an option that breaks you away from that 90-degree angle and promotes healthy blood flow. Look for a chair that promotes the following:
Creates an open hip angle. This is why some chairs look like saddles. This shape opens the hips into their most natural and healthy position, taking the weight off the tailbone. Another option is the kneeling chair. These allow you to have multiple sitting positions and when you start feeling sore, it’s time to stand!
Engages the core. You’re automatically going to have more energy after working out, although that sounds quite strange, it’s actually true. Chairs that add movement to our sitting position are going to mimic that, so ones that add a back and forth movement or go from side to side (like a Bosu ball) will be your go-to.
Hopefully, we gave you a fun read on ergonomics and some newfound education to change up your workflow. We’ve shown that when you add movement to your workday and collaboration with others, you walk away more energized and happy compared to sitting in a cubicle alone and in a chair that is limiting your health. Some people turn to coworking spaces to introduce collaboration and take advantage of their standing desks and ergonomic chairs.
Did we change the way you thought about sitting and ergonomics? If so, let us know in the comments below!