Lena Lehmann, ergonomist and certified physiotherapist looks at the link between a good working environment and a healthy body.

You are at home. The phone rings and an intense conversation starts. You hold your mobile in your hand and against your ear, and start walking round while you talk. After a while you put your headset on and put the phone in your pocket. Now you can devote yourself fully to the conversation. You move, gesticulate and describe with your body language what your caller will never see but can nevertheless feel.

Many of today’s workplaces take advantage of the good ergonomic work situations which a home environment offers. Because ergonomics is at its best when we can customise our working environment so that it gives optimal results both for us and for the task we are to carry out. In order to do this, we need to understand something about our incomparable body.

MOVEMENT

We human beings are, from every point of view, designed for movement, and our functions – from nervous system to digestion – depend on the fact that we move about. We should therefore create efficient ergonomic environments which provide good scope for physical activity. Despite this, we often prioritise thinking. We have increasingly given our brain the priority, and customised our environments for seated activities such as using a computer, watching TV and reading demanding documents. Since people are creatures of habit, we have got used to thinking that this is how it should be, and devoted a lot of effort, time and money to attempting to customise the human body to lengthy periods of sitting. Today, there is research which supports the strong link between movement and well-being. It tells us that we should sit less and that the sitting we do should be high-quality and healthy. When we do sit, we should sit really well. This is exactly why we need work tools and furniture which are flexible and easy to customise to the characteristics of each individual.

RECUPERATION

Just as much as we need movement and activity, we need to wind down and recharge our batteries. It is not enough to take a few weeks off per year – we need to regularly consider active rest. From tension comes relaxation, and vice versa. Stress is a force which is in general good for us, and stimulates us to be creative – provided that it is combined with recuperation. We fall ill most often not because of stress itself, but because of lack of recuperation. A good working environment creates the necessary conditions for recuperation during working time.

THE BACK

The back is one of our body’s weakest links, and needs to be treated with respect. It consists of 32-35 vertebrae, each of which has its own unique position and its own unique function. The anatomical configuration of the backbone has an S-like shape, which we should try to maintain as far as possible when we sit. We do this with the aid of both ergonomically-designed chairs and the surrounding muscles. As whole days of sitting still mean that we no longer strain our bodies naturally in our everyday lives, we may need to give our own ’muscle corset’ some training. Fitness training, if done correctly, can prevent problems by making our muscles stronger. It is important to remember that the seated position – in spite of good chairs – is unnatural for the back, which is a further reason to vary our working posture between sitting and standing.

NECK AND SHOULDERS

Our body’s circulation system is like a gurgling stream in springtime. We benefit from a constant unobstructed flow. If it stops, there is a risk that the flow will be interrupted and our health will suffer. Our office jobs entail lengthy static time for the shoulders and the neck area. The blood vessels through which our blood has to surge in order to supply our ’data muscles’ with oxygen are extremely narrow. They are so narrow that a drop of blood filled with oxygen has to fold itself double in order to get through. This means that even tense working postures with low strain cause a lack of oxygen in the muscles, with pain and injury as a result. If we also take into account that we have poor lighting, a draught from a window or defective eyesight and raised stress levels, all of which lead to increased tension in the neck and shoulders, oxygen deficiency in the muscles is inevitable. Good ergonomics for the neck and shoulders means creating environments where we can work with a relaxed neck and shoulders, take regular breaks and vary our working posture to stimulate the flow of blood, as well as offering a good indoor environment with adequate lighting. The design of the furniture and individual customisation make a beneficial distribution of weight possible.

HANDS AND ARMS

Excessive strain means that the body has been subjected to something too heavy, or has been doing something for too long or too many times. Office work is generally not heavy work, but it involves the frequent repetition of the same small movements in the hands and forearms during the working day. Two commonly occurring and painful complaints connected with monotonous movements while using a computer are mouse arm and carpal tunnel syndrome. These complaints can be prevented with the aid of good work tools and by changing our working posture from time to time. Challenge your habits and switch your mouse from one hand to the other, use short commands and ensure a working posture which is customised to your own height and size. All monotonous, unvarying work tasks should also be regularly interrupted to allow that gurgling stream – our fantastic body – to flow.

This article is from BODY TALK - our ergonomics magazine. To order a copy click here >>>