Office Ergonomics and Work-Related Stress

Ergonomics, the study of work, can reduce stress at work. It involves designing a job to fit the person so that the environment is safe and brings out the best in people. Good ergonomics will make employees more comfortable and productive.

If we are in a job that brings about physical stress in any way, this can lead to tiredness, discomfort or pain. When we are not feeling good physically it impacts negatively on our mental and emotional state. We may begin to feel stressed at work without possibly even knowing why.

There are 3 aspects to be mindful of when it comes to ergonomics:

  • Awareness: how is my body reacting to the work environment? Do I experience any niggling aches or pain? If so, my body is trying to tell me that something is wrong or out of balance.
  • Prevention: if I am aware of any discomfort, I can take preventative action before my condition is worsened. I can go for treatment that will bring healing quicker.
  • Exercise: our bodies were not designed to sit still for long periods of time so we need to get into the habit of doing some exercises at our work station to keep our body in a healthy state.

Paying attention to these factors will reduce physical stress in our lives.

Challenges at Work

At work we may experience physical stress due to the repetitive nature of our work e.g. we may be sitting at our computer for hours at a time. If this is so, certain muscles in our body are being over used and this puts stress on our body. In office jobs we often find ourselves working to deadlines, skipping breaks or focussing so intently on our work that we ignore any warning bells from our body. We may even forget to breathe properly!

Typical symptoms may include: niggly little aches and pains, dull ache in our back, tingling or burning sensation in our arms, hands or neck, muscle spasms, swelling of our hands, wrists or feet or even definite pain. Our body is trying to tell us something is not right.

Risk Factors

There are various factors that can contribute to us experiencing stress at work:

  • Physical: your posture may not be good: you sit with your legs crossed while on the computer. Or you sit with one leg underneath you. The keyboard or computer screen may be too high. You lean forward continuously with your elbows on your desk, etc.
  • Psychological: you may be stressed at work as a result of work pressures, your senior’s management style, interpersonal dynamics, lack of job clarity, etc.
  • Organisational: your work schedule is pressurised, you work long hours, you need to travel a great deal, you work in an open plan area.
  • Environmental: there is constant noise or activity, the temperature is either too hot or too cold, the lighting may not be good, colleagues may be noisy or chatty.

All of these factors can lead to you experiencing physical, emotional and mental stress at work.


At a practical level let us explore some solutions.


  • Your chair needs to be at the height where your thighs are horizontal with the floor and your knees are at right angles when you are sitting.
  • The space between the front edge of the seat and the back of your knee should be two to three fingers. This will minimize pressure underneath your leg.
  • Adjust the chair so that lumbar support rests in the small of your back.
  • Armrests: when sitting, bend your elbows to 90 degrees and relax the shoulders. If your armrests do not allow for this position, do not use them while typing or using the mouse. If armrests are too high or too low, get a new chair without armrests.

Rest breaks: Take breaks every 20-30 minutes by standing up and walking. Do some stretching exercises every 10 minutes (see below)

Posture: Keep your feet flat on the floor or use a foot rest if your feet do not reach the floor. Lean into the backrest at all times. Keep your back straight and your chin tucked in. This position should feel comfortable and natural.

Work space:

Customise your work surface: Have the items you use often close at hand. Keep your work surface free of clutter. Your legs should be able to move easily underneath the desk.

Monitor: If you use a laptop you will need to have a standalone keyboard otherwise your posture will be negatively affected in the long term.  Place the monitor directly in front of you when your head is in neutral position and your eyes are looking forward.  It should be at eye level or just slightly below eye level and 45 – 75 cm from your eyes (about an arm’s length away).

Mouse and keyboard: place your keyboard so your wrists are straight when your elbows are at 90 degrees. Adjust your chair height or lower your keyboard. The mouse should be at the same height as the keyboard.


It is important to get into the habit of doing regularly stretching exercises at your work station. This will help you release some of the tension that has built up in your muscles. Do each of the exercises a few times to release the tension.

Neck and upper back:

  • Sit with your arms hanging loosely at your sides. Circle your shoulders gently forwards a few times one at a time then both together. Then circle them backwards.
  • Extend both arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Interlock fingers with palms facing away from the body. Keep an upright posture and reach forward with the arms until you feel a stretch in the shoulder/upper back region. Hold for six to ten seconds. Raise and stretch both arms overhead, keeping arms extended and fingers interlocked. Keep stomach muscles tight to avoid arching the low back. Breathe naturally and hold for ten seconds.
  • Sitting up straight, pull the chin in gently. Gently and slowly bend your head towards your right shoulder until you feel a mild stretch on the left side of your neck. Hold for five seconds and repeat on the other side.

Shoulders: Look straight ahead and relax your head. Slowly pull your shoulders up towards your ears. Hold for one to two seconds and then drop them again.

Shoulder and arm stretch: Reach one arm across the chest, holding the opposite shoulder. With the other arm, gently pull the elbow across the chest and towards the body until you feel a stretch. Hold like this for six to ten seconds.

Executive stretch: Lock your hands behind your head. Slowly stretch backwards in your chair. Arch your back slightly and gently. Hold for six to ten seconds. Relax for five to ten seconds and then repeat.

Eyes: Rub your palms together until they are warm. Cup your hands. While resting your elbows on a desk or table, cover each eye gently with one palm so that all light is blocked out.  Breathe naturally. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Remove hands and open eyes slowly.

If you would like to read more there is a lovely piece on ergonomics.

In essence it is crucial to be aware of the physical impact of your environment on your body and well-being. If you find you are experiencing physical twinges take action now to see a body work therapist who can help you release the tension before it leads to chronic problems.


Posted in Stress, Well-being.