Is your desk the right height?
Last week I was working in a law firm conducting ergonomic training as part of their new office move and a few people kept asking for their desks to be raised higher. For context these people were all under 5’8” tall.
I was slightly baffled by this as the standard desk height (720mm) which is commonplace around the world, actually correlates to the seated elbow height of a 6’2” male. To explain, when a 6’2” male is sat comfortably in his chair, his natural elbow position is the same height as the top of a desk that is 720mm high without having to make any adjustments.
From experience I have found that offices are typically occupied by 5-10% of people who are 6’2” or taller. So, if you are in charge of designing an office space, specifying products or are a key decision maker, you have just designed your whole office so that it only fits 5-10% of the population.
I’ll let you ponder that for a second…
Now you might be able to stop wondering why so many people are complaining of discomfort in the office. You’ve literally just set 100% of the desks to a height that only fits 10% of the population at the most. In some offices that would drop to 5% or lower.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the only thing that can go wrong when it comes to ergonomics in the office, but I would say it’s a pretty prominent issue.
If you are under this height, then you are more than likely going to have to compromise your body position to work with the tools on your desk. Your shoulders will be shrugged because the desk is higher than your natural elbow height.
You may suffer from contact stress underneath your wrists because the desk is raised and you will naturally hang your wrists off the edge of the desk.
You may perch on the edge of your chair to force you to sit more upright and therefore raising yourself to be higher than the desk. When people perch on the edge of their chair they do 1 of 2 things. On both occasions they will change their posture due to fatigue, so they may start to slouch after 10-15 minutes of sitting this way which causes a lot of extra load on the lower back particularly in the L4 and L5 vertebrae, or they may start to lean on the desk for support.
This type of posture if done for long periods of time and with lack of movement can cause significant lower back discomfort or pain. Nothing too life threatening unless you’ve done some serious damage elsewhere but would still affect your day to day performance at work and at home. If you are worrying about your bad back, then you aren’t focusing on the task at hand.
So why do these shorter people want their desk raised.
Well I think part of the issue is that, they’ve never been told otherwise and for whatever reason think that a higher desk is better for them. Or perhaps they’ve been told to set their desk height at the same height as their arms. The problem with that is most people will adjust their desk to the height of their chair armrests. Well what if my chair armrests are at the highest setting?
What should really happen is when the employee is in a comfortable position in their chair, the desk should come to the same height as their natural elbow height. A tip; move the chair armrests out the way and put your hands in your lap and there you will find your natural elbow position. Sit side onto the desk and if you have to lift your arm to reach the desk you are too low. If you can slide your arm left and right, keeping your shoulders down and relaxed then you are good to go.
But now your feet are dangling because you can’t reach the floor properly and any good ergonomic guideline would tell you to have your feet planted on the floor. If you have a fixed desk at 720mm high and it doesn’t have the capability of adjusting, you have two options. The easiest and most cost effective would be to get yourself a bog-standard footrest. The more expensive and arguably better option would be a keyboard tray. A keyboard tray attaches to the underside of your desk and encourages your keyboard and mouse to ‘sit in your lap’. Your keyboard and mouse now drop down to your natural elbow position and your feet are nicely planted on the floor. Win-win situation.
Ok so you install everyone’s desk with a keyboard tray. That’ll solve the problem. Theoretically it does but we know through research that installing a keyboard tray without any training will cause the majority of people to reject the product and not use it, most likely asking to have it removed because it hits their knees. Like anything new, it needs an explanation and training to use it effectively.
Another issue you’ll run into now is that those people who do fit at the desk comfortably without any additional tools, will now not be able to because the keyboard tray brings everything too low. This problem can be solved if you work in an environment where everyone has their own fixed desk but in 2018 many offices are moving to an agile working environment where we are sharing desks. How does a 5’5” person and a 6’2” person share the same desk now…
We are now back to square one.
Morale of the story workstation standards and ergonomics guidelines are outdated so designing with them in mind is only going to cost you time, money and a lower company performance. Designing an office with standard height desks and no adjustment is going to cause issues, there is no doubt.
Do you need to create an office with a 100% sit stand desks? Well, you could but that’s going to cost you a lot of money and after the ‘Christmas gift’ affect wears off from having a new toy, only 7% of your employees will be using them. Well that was a waste. Another thing, not all sit stand desks go lower than 720mm so even if you kit out your whole office with sit stand desks, in a seated position your employees are still going to be in the wrong position because the desk doesn’t adjust low enough. Make sure when you buy sit stand desks that they go lower than 720mm. Ideally down to 650mm and that should fit a large portion of people in the office.
A conundrum to say the least. My unsolicited advice; kit out your whole office with adjustable desks. When I say adjustable, I don’t mean sit stand desks, I mean desks that can adjust in height in a seated position. You want to make sure though that these desks are easily adjustable by the employee and don’t need a Facilities Manager to come in each time with their Allen key or whatever other tools they need to raise or lower them and waste half your day. At this point you may want to add a percentage of sit stand desks and plot them around the office. 10% is a good start and then see how you go.
And of course, with anything, even with the most adjustable and user-friendly product, not everyone knows where to adjust them so that they are working optimally. Good products coupled with ergonomics training and you’ll have yourself one hell of a team that are thriving because of their well setup workstations and regular movement around the office.
You could always implement standing meeting desks, mapped areas around the office for walking meetings or signposts to use the stairs, if movement is of concern. You don’t need a sit stand desk to create more movement in the office. You need to create a culture that moves and a design that enables it. Increasing your N.E.A.T is what it’s all about.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the energy expended for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. It ranges from the energy expended walking to work, typing, performing yard work, undertaking agricultural tasks and fidgeting. Even trivial physical activities increase metabolic rate substantially and it is the cumulative impact of a multitude of exothermic actions that culminate in an individual’s daily NEAT. If you are wanting to burn more calories and shed a few pounds, adding more N.E.A.T into your day is your answer.
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