Get up, stand up for improved office wellbeing

If you have an office job, chances are you spend a lot of time hunched over a computer. You may also have suffered in one way or another from the assortment of muscular- and related ailments that bad posture brings: headaches, back pains and neck strains.

“People will be surprised at the amount of science behind the simple act of desk-sitting,” says Roelof Jacobs, an avid mountain biker and physiotherapist working in Techno Park. “And yet, if you stop to think about it, it’s such an important part of our lives. We spend six to eight hours each day sitting at our desks – that’s almost as much as we sleep.”

Sitting, as the saying goes, is the new smoking, and Jacobs points to a few reasons why this may be so. “When you’re sitting, you’re knees are bent, which means the veins are pinched. You’re moving less, your blood flow slows,” he explains. “When you’re standing, on the other hand, the blood vessels open and flow improves. The posterior line is activated – muscles that weaken if you sit all the time – which improves your general posture. You’re also more alert and active when you’re standing – essentially you’re a bit sharper,” he says.

If the prospect of standing for hours on end while you’re tapping out a lengthy report or coding segments for an important new disruptive technology fills you with apprehension, you’re not alone. Jacobs explains, however, that it’s clearly not feasible to stand all day – the trick is rather to alternate between sitting and standing. And fortunately, new products have started finding their way onto the market that aim to help you do just that.

One such product has been designed by Jacobs and an architect friend during the last year. Combining their expertise under the VORM Designs label, they developed a sit-stand desk aimed at improving the ergonomic wellbeing of office workers. Constructed from birch plywood, the stylish, aesthetically pleasing unit fits onto an existing desk, and is adjustable according to your specific height requirements. It collapses into a handy flat stack carry case for ease of transport and storage, and comes equipped with a slot for your cell phone or tablet.

For those who don’t feel ready to invest in posture-enhancing equipment just yet, Jacobs has a few tips that can alleviate some of the harmful effects of sitting all day. The first of these is to take regular breaks. “If you’re a programmer or a CA, you get in the zone, and you sit there for hours on end, maybe even forgetting to take lunch,” he says. “But people often don’t realise that the longer you stay in the zone, the less efficient you are.” Studies looking at typing accuracy, among other variables, have found that taking frequent breaks leads to similar levels of productivity, minus the painful side effects of neck-or back pain. “You gain everything, and lose nothing,” he says.

A second tip is to keep a few basic ergonomic principles in mind when arranging your office setup. The first of these is the so-called “90° rule”: try to keep your knees, hips and elbows at a ninety degree angle while seated at your desk. Another is to acknowledge that there are many different body types, and what works for one person ergonomically won’t necessarily work for the next. “It’s not simply a case of copy-pasting furniture arrangement for everyone,” says Jacobs.

While there is scope for going into finer details when adapting one’s work environment for optimum ergonomic efficiency – lighting, noise levels and screen brightness can all have an impact – these basic tips should already go some distance towards enhancing your physical relationship with the essential functions of your job. What it boils down to, says Jacobs, is that we spend so much time in the workplace that we simply cannot afford not to get it right. Sometimes all that is required is something minor, like tweaking the height of the computer screen; other times a more dramatic overall of the working environment may be required.

According to Jacobs, the science of ergonomics has long since become a staple of the workplace abroad, but is only slowly filtering into office culture in South Africa. He is confident, however, that its benefits will have a long-lasting impact here. “What it amounts to, essentially, is that the better your office setup, the more productive and efficient you’ll be – and the happier you’ll generally be as a person!”

Will the office of the future adapt itself to your body’s peculiar dimensions and curves? Or will you come back to work next year to a chair that’s too high, a desk that’s too short, and a computer screen that glares at you too fiercely? Whatever the case may be, we urge you to take stock of your own setup in the office and to think about what you can do to enhance your own ergonomic comfort.

If you would like to make an appointment with Jacobs or have any queries about the VORM Designs sit-stand desk, you can get in touch at roelofcj@gmail.com.

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