April 21, 2024

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Elevating Home Design Standards

7 Things You Need for an Ergonomically Correct Workstation

7 min read

After years of slumping at a desk, I’ve started to suffer the aches that come from having a poor workspace setup.

The stiff chair, the desk that’s too tall for my height, and the cramped laptop keyboard have all become a literal pain in the neck (and shoulders, and back, and elsewhere). After talking with ergonomics experts, I’ve learned that an ergonomic workstation—one that supports your body in a neutral position—can reduce the risk of discomfort or pain that these stressors cause our bodies.

This means: Your neck isn’t contorted or bent back or down, your arms aren’t lifted or extended out to the sides of your body, your wrists and hands aren’t bent upward or sideways, and your spine isn’t twisted. An ergonomic workstation will help you sit comfortably at a computer, even over long stints. (But you should still remember to take breaks and move every hour.)

Here’s how to set up a workspace that fits and supports you the best, based on advice from ergonomics experts as well as on what we’ve found over years of testing home-office furniture and gear.

Ergonomic workstation setup

An illustration about how to set up a workspace that fits and supports you best, based on advice from ergonomics experts.
Illustration: Dana Davis

A comfortable chair that supports your spine

Our pick for best ergonomic office chair, the Steelcase Gesture, so adjustable it's likely to be comfortable for everyone.
Photo: Kyle Fitzgerald

This is one of the most adjustable chairs available—anyone can make it comfortable, regardless of their height or size. And it’s built to last.

Take a seat at your desk. With your back pressed against your chair’s backrest, see whether your lower back and mid-back feel cushioned, or if there are gaps between your spine and the chair. The best office chairs support the natural “S” curve of your back. Sitting in a poorly designed chair feels more like you’re seated on a log against a hard wall. Cornell University ergonomics professor Alan Hedge told us that if your lower back isn’t supported by the chair, you need lumbar support.

If you spend hours at your desk each day, it’s worth it to invest in a great office chair with that lumbar support. We’ve recommended the Steelcase Gesture for years because it’s highly adjustable to fit a variety of body types and sizes, and it has a supremely comfortable cushion and adjustable lumbar support. You might be able to find one of these chairs at a huge discount at your local office-liquidation store or one of Habitat for Humanity’s ReStores.

If you don’t want to invest in a new office chair at this time, a lumbar-support pillow and a seat cushion can transform even the most basic, non-padded chair into something you can sit on comfortably for a few hours. A lumbar-support pillow is especially helpful in making your chair fit you better, and that will encourage you to sit properly, with your back against the backrest (good), instead of leaning forward or sitting at the edge of your seat (bad).

A desk set at the proper height for using your keyboard

The Uplift V2 Standing Desk, our pick for best standing desk, in a white room, emphasizing its pleasing, customizable design.
Photo: Michael Murtaugh

This is the most customizable desk we’ve ever tested, and it works for a wide range of heights (people between 5-foot-4 and 7 feet).

Ideally, when you’re typing on a keyboard at your desk, your arms and wrists would be in a neutral position: parallel to the floor or angled down toward your lap to reduce strain. Typical desks, however, are between 28 and 30 inches high, which is a good fit for people who are about 5-foot-10 or above. But for those who are shorter than that (the average adult), this desk height is not ideal for keeping their arms parallel to the ground.

There are a couple of solutions to this. To lower the keyboard, you could mount a keyboard tray under your desk, or try raising your chair higher so your wrists are above the keyboard. If you raise your chair, make sure you can still keep your feet flat on the floor. If not, you’ll need a footrest to give proper support to your legs and feet.

Because there are so many moving parts, getting a just-right ergonomic setup is tricky. Cornell University’s Ergonomics Web said it’s impossible to set a workspace (including your desk, chair, and monitor) at the optimal height for all five main office tasks: Typing, mousing, writing, reading documents, and viewing your screen all require different workspace heights. An adjustable-height standing desk offers the best fit because you can raise or lower the desk height in half-inch increments, and you can easily switch between sitting and standing at regular intervals throughout the day.

An external, ergonomic keyboard

A bird's eye view of the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB, our pick for best ergonomic mechanical keyboard.
Photo: Michael Murtaugh

This mechanical keyboard is comfortable and meets our ergonomic criteria: It’s fully split, has a flat slope, can tent, lacks a number pad, and can be programmed for further customizability.

Here’s another exercise: Place your hands over your keyboard as if you’re going to type. Now move your hands apart so they’re by your sides, shoulder-width apart. That should feel relieving and more relaxing, with less stress on your shoulders. Unfortunately, most keyboards aren’t designed for this position and instead force your hands inward so your shoulders are hunched.

The most adjustable ergonomic keyboard is a fully split one, like the Kinesis Freestyle Edge RGB. It lets you space each half of the keyboard so that your hands are shoulder-width apart and your shoulders are relaxed.

There’s a steep learning curve to typing on a split keyboard. So you might opt for a partially split keyboard, like the Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, or at least a keyboard that doesn’t have a number pad, such as our favorite mechanical keyboard, the Varmilo VA87M. Keyboards without a number pad (also known as “tenkeyless keyboards”) keep the mouse closer to you, thereby reducing the stress of having your arm frequently extended.

Also, an ergonomic keyboard is one that either has a low, flat profile or that tilts forward (with the space keys higher than the top row of keys), to keep your wrists in a neutral position.

Peter Keir, professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, told us, “If there are feet to pop up near the edge of your computer, do not use them. They act to extend your wrist—and most people have some extension to start.”

A mouse that fits your hand

An overhead view of the Logitech M720 Triathlon Multi-Device, our pick for best wireless mouse, on a green background.
Photo: Michael Murtaugh

This mouse is comfortable for a wide range of hand sizes, and it has six programmable buttons and long battery life.

Using repetitive motions on your laptop’s touchpad or a standard mouse can stress muscles in your fingers and wrists in the same way that repetitive typing can cause fatigue or pain.

At the minimum, most people should look for a mouse that is comfortable to grip and smooth to maneuver. We’ve found the Logitech M720 Triathlon Multi-Device Wireless Mouse to be the best wireless mouse for a range of hand sizes and different types of grips.

If using a mouse causes pain or fatigue in your wrists, consider another type of input device, one that reduces fine wrist movements, such as a stylus with a graphics tablet or a trackball. Either can be useful if you have shoulder or wrist strain because it will keep your hand in a neutral position.

A display set at a comfortable height, within arm’s reach

The Rain Design iLevel 2, our pick for best laptop stand, on a cream background, highlighting its attractive aluminum frame.
Photo: Michael Murtaugh

This stand is made of anodized aluminum, so it’s exceptionally sturdy and stylish. And of all the laptop stands we’ve tested, it’s also the easiest to adjust.

To protect your eyes from strain and fatigue, make sure you can clearly see what’s on your monitor or laptop screen, without having to crane or bend your neck. Place your display so your eye level is at the top of the monitor or an inch or two below it and about an arm’s length away.

You can raise your laptop or monitor as needed with just about anything that’s flat and wide, like a stack of books. But for more sturdiness and finer control over the height of your display, consider a laptop stand, like the Rain Design iLevel 2, or a monitor arm, such as the Herman Miller Jarvis Single Monitor Arm. Both are highly adjustable.

Good lighting

The IKEA Forså, our pick for best affordable, timeless lamp, on a cream background. Position light just where you want it.

This uncomplicated desk lamp uses LED bulbs instead of built-in LEDs, and it’s the most flexible model for positioning light just where you want it.

Ergonomics experts recommend having good lighting, to reduce eye strain and help you avoid craning your neck at an unnatural angle.

An abundance of natural lighting in the workspace is ideal because it can boost your energy and sense of well-being while reducing eye strain. Daylight and access to outdoor views both give your eyes the opportunity to relax and recover from the strain of staring at a monitor all day.

If you don’t have windows in your home office, or when you’re working late or on cloudy days, combine overhead lighting with task lighting for the best balance to help you focus.

Anything that helps you reduce stress while you’re working

A white essential oil difffuser that will help you relax as you work. Featuring walnut wood accents on a green background.
Add items to your workspace that will help you relax. Photo: Michael Murtaugh

Any type of stress or anxiety can cause your muscles to tense up. This makes working more difficult and can in turn result in even more stress. So include things in your workspace that will help you relax. These items might include:

Most importantly, you should play around with your setup. Try raising or lowering your monitor, adjusting your chair, or alternating between sitting and standing. Then check how your body feels after 30 minutes or more, and continue fine-tuning until you get to that Goldilocks level where your workspace is “just right.”

This article was edited by Ben Keough and Erica Ogg.

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