You probably don’t use a desktop computer. They fell out of fashion when people reasoned they’d like to carry their work with them, and do it wherever they please – hot-desking; in a coffee shop; on a plane. Portability and convenience trumped being anchored to a single location.
Unfortunately, just like with fast food, convenient technology isn’t necessarily always good for you. Moreover, with laptops, you may have to take active steps in order to not gradually cause problems for yourself in later life. The effects of poor ergonomics in the workplace can lead to a life of pain, and for this reason, the importance of an ergonomic workspace cannot be overstated.
The Problems with Poor Ergonomics in the Workplace
The most obvious issue with laptops is overuse, as these days most people use laptops as their main computer in the workplace. Because you can use a laptop everywhere, chances are you spend too many hours on your computer; over time, this every day activity can lead to unhealthy habits. Poor neck and head posture or poor hand and wrist posture — poor ergonomics — could cause long-term problems.
The form factor that makes laptops so useful — light; portable; able to use one anywhere — is a big part of this. When the keyboard is placed optimally, the screen is too low, meaning you hunch over and look downwards. Over time, this can result in neck and back pain. But raise the screen so you’re looking at the top third when sitting straight, and the keyboard will be angled to the degree typing will make your wrists scream, and every nearby book on posture and ergonomics will spontaneously combust.
There are other, subtler issues. The screen’s small size can result in eye strain, and in use is nearer than ideal (arm’s length). Even the input area can be problematic. The trackpad’s central position means you will use your thumbs too often, and rest your arms at unnatural angles. If you’ve got a laptop with a number pad, the rest of the keyboard may be offset, so you end up typing at a weird angle. Your back, shoulders, and arms will not thank you later.
How to Improve Ergonomics in the Workplace
Poor ergonomics can cause negative consequences. Fortunately, there are ways to improve ergonomics in the workplace by changing how you use a laptop, some of which are location- and context-specific. These are outlined below.
1. Use external devices and displays
If you have a place where you work often, invest in a set-up that effectively turns your laptop into a desktop while you’re there. Buy an external display, keyboard, and trackpad (or mouse). Feel free to consider a docking station, although these days you can usually run a cable from your laptop to a display, and leave things like back-up drives permanently plugged into its USB ports.
2. Get your posture right
The office set-up works well with a standing desk, which itself can be beneficial for posture and health. Regardless, aim for your eyes to look straight ahead at your display, rather than you craning your neck upwards, or stooping.
You also want your arms resting comfortably, elbows naturally bent at no less than 90 degrees – and not too much more. (Arm rests on a good chair can help with this when seated.) Your wrists should be flat and straight, so as not to strain them.
3. Use a stand when mobile
You’re not going to lug a 23-inch external display and a standing desk to the coffee shop – not least if you don’t want to be known as ‘that guy’. But even in those places you can improve ergonomics and posture. Buy a lightweight keyboard and trackpad to keep in your laptop bag, along with a riser that gets your laptop’s display closer to its optimum position.
However, do not be tempted by stands that only raise the display a little, and leave the keyboard at an angle – that will cause wrist and neck pain in the long run. Also, minimize time you spend working away from your optimal set-up.
4. Avoid using a laptop on your actual lap
It’s best to think of laptops by their other industry term, notebooks, because you shouldn’t use one in your lap. It might be tempting while lounging around to check your email; but before long, you’ll be buried in spreadsheets and presentations, with your neck, back, wrists, and eyes clocking up ‘atrocious posture’ hours.
Heat can also be a problem, given how hot mobile hardware can feel when in contact with bare – or even clothed – legs. You may see recommendations to use a cushion under your laptop to deal with this, but that merely overheats the computer rather than you. So get a stand designed for such usage; or, better, avoid using a laptop in this manner altogether.
5. Take regular breaks
When doing any heavy screen work, it’s vital to take regular breaks. Every 20–25 minutes, take a few minutes to stretch and walk about a bit. Every few hours, have a longer break. This is especially important when using a laptop in a non-optimal set-up.
6. Get a good bag – and wear it well
Laptop bags come in all shapes and sizes, and you need a robust one to protect your laptop – and associated kit if you’re taking advice outlined in this article.
Many modern laptop bags are akin to briefcases, or one-shoulder bags. Take care with these if your kit weighs a lot and you travel far and often. Briefcase-style bags can put a lot of pressure on your fingers when carried, and single-strap bags can lead to you raising a shoulder in an unnatural manner.
If you buy a one-strap bag, wear it across your body. A better bet is a rucksack with two straps, which evenly distributes the weight.
Final Thoughts on the Importance of Economics in the Workplace
A final overriding tip to address poor ergonomics is this: don’t delay. Perhaps you feel fine now; but keep up bad habits, and you might one day feel a twinge or a pain – and you’ll be fortunate if it permanently goes away.
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