A Carilion Clinic Specialist Shares His Advice for the Workplace

You’ve been off work for hours. You’ve had dinner, maybe even visited a ball field for one of your children’s baseball games. Now, you are ready to relax a little bit before it’s time for lights out. But something keeps you from truly enjoying your evening—a sore neck, pain in your upper back or stiffness in your shoulders.

If this sounds like you, chances are you work a full to partial “desk job”—without realizing it, you are becoming engrossed in your computer and are developing poor posture habits that can have a damaging effect on your health over time.

“Poor posture can lead to a stress-related or overuse type condition which can typically surface as pain and/or stiffness,” says Jesse Stem, MD. He specializes in Orthopaedic Spine Surgery at Carilion Clinic.

According to Stem, ergonomics play a big role in keeping our bodies “positioned in a manner that is well balanced and avoids putting too much demand on any one body part or muscle group.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, ergonomics is defined as the process of designing or arranging workplaces, products and systems so that they fit the people who use them. In the same way you adjust the settings of your vehicle (mirrors, distance from the steering wheel, etc.), you should adjust the “settings” of your desk area. “If the keyboard and monitor are not at a proper alignment relative to the employee’s neck and hands, then the employee will likely experience early fatigue in certain muscle groups while they are working at their work station,” Stem explains.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average civilian employee spends 39 percent of the workday sitting. But a software developer, for example, may spend as much as 90 percent of the day sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

For these employees, one recent advancement in ergonomics that can improve posture is a standing desk. (One popular model is the VARIDESK®.) It allows the employee to stand at their work station, bringing the keyboard and monitor up to an elevated position. “The employee can change positions and still remain productive at their work station,” Stem explains.

Aside from adjusting your workspace or even considering a standing desk, Stem also has a simple recommendation that can not only improve your posture, but also your mental health in the workplace. “[Take] brief periodic breaks to relax and lubricate the joints and ligaments. This might involve getting up and walking to the restroom or to a water fountain just to get a break,” he says.

Set a timer on your smartphone to remind you to step away from the screen, or even put a simple paper reminder somewhere in your workspace.

The goal for any employee who spends part of the workday in front of a computer is to avoid being stuck in one position for an extended period of time. Pay attention to your body; when you feel stiffness or pain, adjust your posture or computer/desk settings immediately.

If those adjustments aren’t enough to get rid of those daily aches and pains, Stem says some employees may want to consider seeking treatment or assistance.

“Working with a physical therapist on postural re-training as well as an assessment of your workplace ergonomics/accommodations can often be helpful,” he says.