What You Need to Know about Ergonomic Workstation Setup and Why You Should Get Up Out of Your Chair

What-You-Need-to-Know-about-Ergonomic-Workstation-SetupHave you taken a stretch break in the last 15 minutes? Do it! Lift your arms up above your head and tilt back slightly to counteract that forward curve. Yes, we’re talking to you.

Like other professionals, medical communicators tend to spend a lot of time at their desks. We’re looking at screens, meeting online, poring over documents, talking on phones, and researching and writing.  

Sitting for hours and hours in the same position wreaks havoc on bodies, causing a host of issues such as shoulder, arm, back, hand, and neck pain. And typing on keyboards and using a mouse also cause trouble in hands, arms, and shoulders, leading to conditions like “mouse arm” and carpal tunnel syndrome.

What are some expert tips for an ergonomic workstation setup that will keep your mind and body happy and productive?

Ergonomic Basics

Ergonomics, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), means “fitting a job to a person.” 

Our bodies are not built for the kinds of repetitive tasks that are necessary in certain occupations. Workers at high risk for musculoskeletal disorders include nurses, laborers, factory workers, drivers, janitors, and store clerks. 

But just because medical communicators aren’t on the list of high‑risk occupations doesn’t mean you should ignore ergonomics. Anyone who looks at screens and operates a keyboard and mouse many hours a day should pay attention to ergonomics, body mechanics, and equipment that can keep our bodies healthy.

Workstation Tips

The Mayo Clinic website provides a visual guide for setting up a workstation that facilitates good posture. Some of the basics include the following

  • A monitor that is an arm’s length away from your face. The top of the monitor should be at eye level, or slightly below.
  • A desk that is at a height that allows your wrists to be straight and your hands to be at or below elbow level.
  • A chair that supports the curve of your spine and is high enough to make your knees level with your hips. It should support your upper and lower back, and you should be able to gently rest your arms on the armrests with your shoulders relaxed.
  • Objects you use often, like your phone or printed documents, should be close enough that you are not always having to reach for them.
  • The mouse should be nearby and on the same level as your keyboard.

Avoiding “Mouse Arm”

To avoid repetitive strain injuries such as “mouse arm” (yes, it’s a thing, and so is mouse shoulder), keep your wrists straight when typing. Upper arms should stay close to your body. Keyboard shortcuts can help you reduce your use of the mouse. 

Using a lighter touch when typing or operating the mouse helps reduce strain too. Sometimes the mouse will have adjustable buttons so that you can reduce the finger force required to click them. For a challenging but useful change, try mousing with your nondominant hand.

Watch Out for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Are you on the lookout for signs of carpal tunnel syndrome? 

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a condition that can arise if people are using a mouse or keyboard so often that it leads to compression of the median nerve on the palm side of the wrist. Signs of carpal tunnel are numbness in the fingers and thumb, tingling or a “shock” sensation in the thumb or fingers, forearm or arm pain, and weakened hand strength.

It’s no fun, and there are things you can do to prevent it.

In the AMWA Engage community, lots of expert medical writers weighed in on a discussion about ergonomics. Some members wondered whether a split keyboard or a new type of mouse would help with elbow and shoulder pain. 

One recommendation was RollerMousePro2 from Contour. It’s a long pad that allows you to vary your posture by moving your whole arm, not just your wrists. This is not an endorsement of the product, but lots of useful information on ergonomics is available on the company’s website.

Other AMWA members sing the praises of ergonomic keyboards, like Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard. These types of split keyboards have plush wrist rests and are curved to support a more natural typing position. 

Because there are so many choices out there, it’s a good idea to try out some options to see what works for your body and setup. 

Pay Attention to Posture

The position you use to type and do your work matters a lot. In this helpful article from UCLA, ergonomics experts recommend pushing your hips back in your chair, pulling up close to your keyboard, and putting the keyboard directly in front of your body.

If you have palm support for your keyboard, you should use it to rest between typing sessions. Don’t press down on it while you are typing.

…and Don’t Get Phone Neck

If you spend time on the phone and need to take notes or type, you’ll want to avoid cranking your neck to the side to hold the phone. Use a speaker setting or a headset. Your neck will thank you.

Your neck will also thank you for doing gentle stretching exercises many times a day to keep those joints limber.

Now It’s Time to Get Up!

More and more evidence shows that sitting most of the day is just plain bad for us. In fact, an analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels showed that people who sat for more than 8 hours a day had a risk of dying that was similar to that caused by smoking or obesity. 

Aside from setting up a standing desk, what can you do to avoid some of the fatigue and mechanical issues that arise from prolonged sitting? 

Getting up and stretching frequently, and paying attention to spinal posture are important for anyone who works at a desk. At AMWA events and conferences, we are starting to incorporate yoga and walks into sessions and activities to make sure that our members stay healthy and aligned.

Love Your Body and Your Work

You won’t be more productive by forcing yourself to stare at your screen for long periods of time uninterrupted. In the discussion on ergonomics, several AMWA members extolled the benefits of Pilates or swimming, or any activity that is not sitting.

Above all, be kind to your body, eyes, and brain by taking frequent breaks to stretch, look away from the screen, and move around. Most ergonomics experts recommend taking a break every 20 to 30 minutes, and they definitely recommend stepping away from your desk for a lunch break. 

Whether you are in the business of freelance medical writing or any other form of medical communication, everything works better when your work environment works for you.

Keep it moving, people.

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American Medical Writers Association

AMWA is the leading resource for medical communicators. The AMWA Blog is developed in partnership with community members who work every day to create clear communications that lead to better health and well-being.