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Making do: sitting cross-legged, taking breaks, and other frowned-on ergonomic behaviors

Posted Jan 28 2011 1:13pm

Every workspace has its own ergonomic issues, and every body has different ergonomic needs and problems based on their physique and habits. A lot of generic writing on ergonomics, unfortunately, seems to be prescriptive–forcing users to try to sit in a particular position, creating tools that force you into an upright posture with your arms in a specific pose. I’ve concluded instead that we need to assess each workspace and our needs individually–which is why ergonomists exist as a profession and you can go by custom products at the store. But the key isn’t just to adjust the workspace to a specific posture and stay there–what keeps people mobile and functional is to move often, try different postures, and get exercise as the day goes by.

Work-arounds like these are unfortunately not always appreciated by coworkers or managers. For example I’ve recently been working in a basement office where no natural light peers in, and if I crank my chair up to reach the keyboard comfortably, my feet don’t reach the floor. (I’m a special monkey since I’m only five feet tall, so I make do however I can.) Recently one afternoon, I gave up on sitting in my chair the old-fashioned way and pulled my legs up to sit cross-legged, then pulled my laptop down into my lap so I could type more comfortably without straining my lower back and shoulders.

A colleague sits right next to me at the same table and said something like, “I don’t know how you can work like that!” as if I was in the most uncomfortable position in the world. I explained that I actually was much more comfortable working like that– at least for a short time. After a while, my ankle started to feel too stretched and I went back to a more traditional position–but just being in that pose for a while helped loosen my shoulders and my hips and relax me enough to let the pain disperse.

The meaning and purpose behind ergonomics is to adjust working conditions to the user, not the other way around. Even in this work space with no foot rest, keyboard tray, laptop stand or external monitor, I am somehow managing (now, three weeks into this project) to make it work. We will see if that’s sustainable for this project, for the several months it’s expected to last.

The other challenge of this particular workspace is it is in a basement–no natural lighting gets through, and my eyes by the end of the week feel strained and sore, exacerbated by poor ventilation and my existing propensity for allergies. I’ve been forcing myself to take breaks, take a walk in the sunshine each day and at least look off into the distance every so often while I’m working. The other day on returning from my legally-required 15 minute morning break, my manager made a point of looking at me, looking at his watch, then turning back to his computer screen. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe he was timing my break, making a point I’d better get to work.

The best solution for pain caused by working too much is, of course, to take breaks, move around, get exercise, and get rest in between working sessions. I’m using WorkRave, a great computer program that you can customize to give yourself micro-breaks every few minutes, and rest breaks every hour or so. A therapist once warned me that if I were to work for three hours straight the following day after our session, I would undo all the work we had done to loosen up my back and shoulders–so I try to follow my break schedule. But if rest and movement are the key to overcoming such pain, how do we reconcile that with our culture’s and coworkers’ attitudes that if you’re not at your desk a certain number of hours, looking busy, you’re not getting the job done?

Well, as a worker at least the law, and most reasonable managers are on our sides. It’s no good to be in pain at your desk, so you’ll get better work done if you do take time to stretch, take rest breaks, get outside part of the day, and adjust as needed. I think most workers, whether they articulate or recognize it or not, also want to be comfortable at work and their health is important to them. So each of us can set a good example for those around us, by valuing those rest breaks and adjustments and showing that you can have a good work ethic and still be comfortable at work, too. Of course, I still prefer to work from my comfy home office, which I get to do on fridays! and luckily more workplaces are allowing people to work remotely, where you can more easily be comfortable.

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