Office Furniture Ergonomics

With elements arguably present since the Stone Age, ergonomics is a relatively new term for an evolving multidisciplinary field of study involving cognitive, organisational and physical sciences. In the UK, it was initially applied to cockpit design in World War II as a reactive response to military problems. Since the late 1940’s, ergonomics has developed to have a focus on understanding the relationship between individuals and their immediate environment, with a dual goal of increasing user wellbeing and system performance.

Although ergonomics is a broad discipline, including sub-specialisms in environmental and visual aspects, it is essentially the application of human-system theories and knowledge to the design of equipment, devices and processes. The worker is the central figure and the outcome should optimise their safety, health, comfort and performance whilst considering physical capabilities and limitations. Within the office, traditional ergonomics has been practiced for decades. Despite being widely regarded as low risk environments, the modern workplace can pose health consequences such as musculoskeletal injuries.

Similarly, the shift from manual to computer labour in many trades has become a major contributor to sedentary lifestyles. British Heart Foundation research indicates that those of working age in England spend on average 9.5 hours per day sitting down. Although this remains an emerging area of research, sedentary lifestyles are known to contribute towards physical and mental health issues including high blood pressure and depression.

Physical ergonomics

Engineering controls, such as purposely designed workstations and chairs, facilitate healthy working by minimising posture issues and related illnesses. Ergonomic chairs conform to the body’s shape, support the spine and keep joints and tissue in natural and neutral positions, but most importantly are customisable to fit each user’s needs. Likewise, the integration of sit-stand desks and office zoning allows users to both move and work ‘smart’.

Posture is defined as a line of gravity and is at the foundation of every movement the body makes. Improper alignment and inadequate support causes additional wear and tear on muscles which can instigate headaches, neck strain and joint pains. Musculoskeletal injuries remain one of the most common reasons for short-term absences, with 52% of respondents listing this in their top three causes in CIPD’s 2020 Health and Wellbeing survey.

Experiencing discomfort at your desk can lead to more distraction and less productivity. Ergonomic fits between person, job task and workstation reduce musculoskeletal stressors, promote blood flow and increase worker comfort; all of which positively impact efficiency and circles back to the discipline’s dual optimisation goal.

Keeping moving

To combat the implications of sedentary lifestyles, introducing frequent light-intensity activity into the workday has been found to benefit physical and mental health. A prolonged static posture in any setting can contribute to aforementioned health consequences as well as restlessness, which is deemed more disruptive than social media use. A variation of work activities and postures brings great benefit physically and mentally.

Sit-stand desks are recommended by specialist unit London Spine Clinic and have been scientifically proven to improve concentration and increase creativity. Whilst standing, some of the body’s largest muscles are in use which increases blood flow to the brain; improving both the way we feel and how we work. Results published by the British Medical Journal show 43% of users who swapped to a variation of both desks felt more productive.

Traditional office ergonomics is limited to individual computer work and the immediate space surrounding the user, yet the modern workspace has seen a rise in collaboration as a source of innovation. Technological advancements have allowed workers to become increasingly mobile and smart layouts within open plan spaces have provided a range of individual or collective zones. The furnishing of today’s office must consider a multitude of environments beyond static workstations and offer support to the movements that come with presenting, meeting, screensharing and so on.

Active ergonomics

The modern workspace and user mobility has been revolutionised by the internet, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Yet, many portable devices do not have a separate keyboard and screen so neither can be in an optimal ergonomic position for the user simultaneously. With these principles in mind, laptop set-ups should mimic desktop configurations with use of an external keyboard, mouse, riser and/or monitor to maintain good posture.

When applying the fundamentals of ergonomics to an agile working space, furniture and technology should be organised in a way that supports regular transitions from focused work to teamwork. Through the integration of easily accessible power points, arm support for tablet use and adjustable monitor arms for group screen viewing, design can be used to vary posture and keep the body moving. Where hot-desking is utilised, it becomes critical that features of the workstation are easily adjusted to suit differing occupiers.

‘Zoning’ the overall layout of the office provides user’s autonomy on selecting a space to fit the task at hand, which is becoming increasingly popular since the resurgence of open-plan workspaces. Providing elements that can be adjusted or moved supports the flow of varying tasks, users and resulting postures. In addition, flexible and home working is a prominent feature of modern working which puts a stronger emphasis on the importance of training to ensure employees understand optimal postures and the set-ups which aid them. Particularly when working off-site, individuals should be sufficiently motivated to spend time making necessary adjustments.

Prioritising wellbeing

When workplaces are designed to meet the needs of employees, there are fewer cases of work-related injuries, fewer absences, higher productivity and greater comfort. In studies carried out by CIPD, research shows that advocating for employee wellbeing benefits morale and engagement, provides a healthier and more inclusive culture and minimises sickness absence. Findings also indicate that companies with a proactive rather than reactive approach see greater benefit and return on ergonomic investment.

In their Posture Wellness Solutions review, the University of Miami found coupling an ergonomic intervention with necessary training is the most effective method of implementing change in the workplace. Carrying out risk assessments, managing problems identified then implementing and monitoring solutions, whilst encouraging employee participation, helps all parties understand their role in ongoing ergonomic compliance.

Promoting healthy day-to-day behaviours, attitudes and work ethics strengthens company culture and further benefits employee engagement, happiness and retention. Encouraging employees to report any musculoskeletal symptoms and taking other input into consideration helps to control, reduce and eliminate work-related risks. External factors continue to influence the workings of ergonomics, but workers will remain the central focus of this field.