I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about improving my office ergonomics for some time now. Since it’s been months (sic!) since I wrote my last post, the time has finally come.
Why bother with office ergonomics?
The first time I got a big translation project (we’re talking working full-time plus for a month here), I was surprised at how quickly I discovered that office ergonomics is absolutely crucial if you want to avoid repetitive strain injury (RSI). My wrists hurt a lot and so did my neck, eyes, back and everything that could hurt because of a) poor office ergonomics and b) not taking a small break or stretch every now and then. Since then I improved my workstation (and habits) immensly and here are some key elements:
Quality office chair
As a freelance translator, the time spent sitting on my chair is a combination of both the time spent stricte translating and the time spent doing other things – from writing this blog to doing my books, contacting clients, performing my marketing duties etc. In total – that’s quite a lot of time. So the chair better be comfortable and supportive. You can find out more about what to look for in a good office chair here under Features to look out for.
Of the important ergonomic features, i.e., seat height & depth, lumbar support, backrest tilt, dynamics, armrests, swivel and padding, my own chair has most. Most chairs allow for seat height adjustment these days and, obviously, none allow for seat depth adjustment (or in any case, none that I know of).
The backrest is really important; if your current chair isn’t great but you don’t want to buy a new one, you could invest in a lumbar support or pad (they cost from 3 GBP for the cheapest). I find some degree of backrest tilt advisable (though if you have a support/pad, it’s less relevant – though I am not speaking from experience here) – not too much, though, or you’ll find yourself unable to rest your back properly.
The dynamics of the chair means that parts of the chair move along with you. My chair has this feature… sort of: the seat can be locked into place or tilt slightly up/down as I move, which I personally find annoying and have locked.
In terms of armrests, these are controversial. Some argue that they lead to unhealthy habits and that you should not use them or, at most, you should only rest your arms on them when you are not using them otherwise. I find that I like using mine, and having them set to the lowest position allows me to rest my arms on them as needed, plus they are out of the way. My personal advice is to look for a chair with armrests that are adjustable. Mine cost me a bit extra, as they were optional (chair from IKEA).
Finally, the padding of your chair should be firm but supportive. I found mine was too hard after hours of sitting and just put a cheap seat cushion to resolve the problem, which has never bothered me since.
Originally my chair in IKEA cost about 170 GBP but I was being fussy and was shopping around. By the time I decided to buy it, the shop decided to withdraw this model and the last chair of this model they had in stock was discounted to approx. 80 GBP + 20 GBP for armrests + 5 GBP for seat cushion = approx. 105 GBP.
That said, my other half was less fussy than me and around the same time paid approx. 100 GBP for his chair, also from IKEA, at full price.
Supportive ergonomic keyboard
I love my keyboard. After all, I spend hours on end typing on it and I need it to do what it’s there for: reliably and accurately produce a lot of characters every day the way I type them. Now, not everyone likes the shaped variety like mine but personally I think the world of this model, i.e., Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000.
One of the most important things to remember when buying a keyboard is that if it is height adjustable from either long side (and most are at least from one side), make sure the raised height does not lead to a blood flow restriction in your wrists. In fact, your wrists should not even touch the keyboard as you type, or it will hurt a lot. I played with different settings of my keyboard (see below) and finally decided that I find it the most comfortable just flat on my desktop.
Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 currently costs approx. 35 GBP from Amazon.
Mouse… or trackball?
I tried a variety of computer mice and used to use a very simple mouse that my PC came with but during one of my larger translation projects I did experience pain in my wrist due to a lot of scrolling. So the next time I happened to be in PC World, as an experiment I bought a trackball with an inbuilt scrolling wheel and a wrist rest, and I have been using it ever since.
I can appreciate that trackballs may not be everyone’s cup of tea; there are other solutions that you might prefer, e.g. central pointing devices, touch pads, mouse pens, mice that use one finger, foot controlled mice, lots of different sizes and shapes of mice or finally, by omitting physical devices completely, voice-activated inputs (read more about all these devices here). From my personal experience, pointing sticks and touchpads, which are commonly present in laptops/netbooks, are only good for a short period of time at a time and after a while I prefer to use a travel mouse instead.
Currently Kensington’s Orbit Trackball with Scroll Ring costs 21 GBP on Amazon.
Screen height adjustment
Your screen should be at the right height for you, so that you sit straight and don’t bend over or look up or down for extended periods of time. Mine is positioned centrally, as I look at it a lot, and at an arm’s length. With a handy biscuit tin I adjusted its height, so that its top is approximately level with my eyes (plus, the tin serves as somewhere to put my sticky notes on!).
I am intending to upgrade my computer and run two screens in the near future, and so will have to replace my handy tin with something else (or at least add to it). I believe a small amount of DIY on my other half’s part should do the trick; you never know, we might do a post on that, too!
Biscuit tin (or a thick book or two that you don’t need regularly) – a few pounds.
The footrest is the latest addition to my ergonomic office, and a very welcome one, too. The truth is that I have a standard height desk, a brilliant chair, a well-adjusted screen and… legs that don’t reach the ground comfortably in this setting. I used to use a fat dictionary that I hardly ever needed otherwise but it wasn’t good for the dictionary and didn’t exactly do the job well.
So I bought a fully adjustable Office Depot footrest – and it’s brilliant. Money well invested!
On Amazon my footrest was advertised as a Compucessory brand item but the one I got is branded Office Depot. It made no difference to me, as it looked the same and had the same features. The cost: 14.95 GBP including delivery.
Both the natural light and artificial light need managing. The window in my office faces west, so every sunny afternoon the sun shines straight into my eyes. So, we found an online site selling blinds that we liked the look of. We ordered a few samples and checked them against a strong source of light to see which one let enough light in to keep the office fairly bright but not so much as to dazzle me.
I’ve also got an old, fully adjustable architect’s lamp for working after sunset; it’s probably 20 years old but it works just fine. I upgraded it with a natural daylight bulb, which I prefer over yellowish artificial light. If you decide to buy them, the glass is blue but the light is not, so don’t worry, that’s just how they come.
So, with window blinds and an adjustable lamp I reduce the glare and my eyes don’t get as tired.
Blinds – approx. 80 GBP (made to measure); old architect’s lamp – free (I inherited it from my other half) but these days you can buy a fully adjustable lamp from 10 GBP; daylight bulb – approx. 7 GBP for two.
It’s really important that when you organise your home office, you take into account how easy it is to get to the things that you use frequently. You don’t want to be bending over or twisting too much just to reach a pen and a piece of paper, and these activities are certainly not worth your back or neck.
The way I’ve got things is: desk with drawers on one side (the two top drawers contain mainly paper, sticky notes and headphones – just basic office items). On my desk I have a small selection of pens, pencils, eraser and a craft knife in a pen pot. In the corner there is a small bookcase, where I keep my dictionaries and reference works, as well as a small tool organiser with further basic office items. This way I have all my basic tools of trade within easy reach.
I hope you found this post useful and I’ve given you a few ideas on how you may improve your own. Or perhaps you have your own, completely different ideas? Please share in comments below!