Are You Sitting Comfortably?
As writers, we work in our own bespoke workstations, but it can be easy to forget the importance of maintaining a healthy work environment. Just as it is vital that we take care of our heads, we also need to consider how our workspace impacts our wellbeing.
First things first: I am not an ergonomics expert. I have done is some research, and distilled some of the knowledge already out there, but this is not a be-all guide. If I manage to catch your interest and you decide you need to do something about your computing or desk-space, I strongly suggest you take a deeper look. Consider this a call to action, and then read up on the latest thinking and detail on sites like the Health and Safety Executive or Unison—both of which have easily consumed downloadable PDFs on workstation ergonomics. People with existing muscular-skeletal problems and pregnant women should take additional care and may need specialist advice. Remember, companies spend a lot of time and money doing risk assessments and making sure their employees don’t fall foul of poorly designed and set up desks. In fact, it the law that they do so. Why should you take any less care of yourself?
There are a number of areas you need to consider, including your chair, desk, writing device, and the number of breaks you take. All of these are separate but interlinked and can be cross-referenced with things like your eyesight. Poor workspaces can cause numerous muscular-skeletal problems, ranging from short-term discomfort in the back, neck, shoulders, and arms, to Repetitive Strain Injury, eye strain, and even stress.
You might be lucky enough to have a permanent space for your writing, in which case this should be easy to consider, however, if you instead move around and write in different places, please don’t just pass on by. It’s just as important you make the best of what you’ve got. If you work on a kitchen table with a laptop after the kids have gone to bed, you still need to consider the points raised in this piece. There’s a lot you can do with a general awareness of the issue and a little ingenuity. Most important, though, is that you take a break and move around even more often than our writing friends with the luxury of a desk and office chair. No one wants severe back ache, so take measures to protect yourself.
Ideally, you need a good quality office chair that has plenty of adjustment in all directions. These can be picked up very reasonably second hand and sometimes for free if you know a business that is refurbishing its office. Typically, a good quality chair can be found for about £50, but remember to find what works for you, not just what is available!
Adjust the seat depth first. Not all chairs allow this, so check the one you buy is suitable before buying it. Measuring with your hand, you should be able to get between two and four fingers between the lip of the seat and the back of your leg. Less means the seating position can restrict circulation; more and it may not support you properly.
The backrest should be adjusted so that it supports the small of your back. When typing, it is generally better to have the backrest fixed, rather than free floating.
Armrests should comfortably support the elbows but should not stop you getting close to the desk. Many people prefer not to have armrests and it is better not to use them when typing as they restrict movement.
Your desk should be big enough for all your equipment, plus any research materials that you like to have out. If you are typing, it should give you space to have your screen at the correct depth on the desk, and the keyboard should be at a suitable height so that your hands fall roughly in the centre of the letters and the middle of the screen when typing normally. Your wrists should rest just in front of the keyboard. Most people do not require a wrist rest and don’t use it when actually typing. If you are using a typewriter, the same applies, but substitute screen for paper and remember to account for the raised aspect of the machinery. If you write by hand, again account for this. A raised, angled writing platform would be of benefit, like old school desks used to have.
The height of the chair in relation to the desk should be such that your arms are comfortable when typing. Your forearm should be approximately horizontal or sloping slightly downwards. Move the keyboard forwards and backwards until your arms achieve this angle. This may make you feel slightly high in your chair compared to the desk but will allow you to sit upright, which is important for your posture.
Some desks are height-adjustable, and this can help make sure your feet are comfortably flat on the floor when all other criteria have been met. You should ensure there’s nothing under the desk to restrict your leg movement. If your feet are not flat on the floor, you may need an angled footrest. If you are very tall, you may need to raise the height of the desk to achieve flat foot positioning. If your desk is not adjustable but you are going to raise it, make sure you do so safely and using strong, level materials.
Sit-stand desks and standing desks are relatively new innovations and sales are soaring. A recent study indicates they may reduce the risk of shoulder and back pain; although it is unlikely they significantly help weight loss, as many sellers claim (you burn about 10% more calories standing than sitting—just 24 calories more in three hours). However, standing all day may also produce comparable risks to sitting all day, including back, leg, or foot pain. Their conclusion was that people should ease their way into it, taking breaks and swapping between standing and sitting. Presumably not an option for many authors, even if they have a home office.
If you are using a screen—whether a desktop PC with a monitor, a laptop, or a tablet with an external keyboard—then it should be directly in front of you when using it, with the top of the screen approximately level with your eyes. If you need to, use a raiser of some description to make that height correct—either a stand or an appropriately sized solid box. Make sure the screen is angled towards you, not away.
Try to avoid glare or flickering lights on the screen which can lead to eye strain. Adjust font sizes so that you can easily read and edit documents on screen. This can be done through your system settings or using the Zoom function in the software you are using.
A regular eye test is important, particularly if you use a screen a lot. A laptop screen will be both nearer and lower than a desktop screen, potentially requiring a different prescription if you require glasses. Make sure you tell the optician what type of screen you use, its distance from you, and how much time you spend on it, when you have your test. Personally, I have two prescriptions for close work: one for laptop use and reading and one for desktop work and longer distance.
Most external keyboards have adjustable feet or are already raised to a suitable working angle. If you haven’t already, be sure to employ the feet so the keyboard is at its most ergonomic. With a laptop this may not be possible, though you can pick up a laptop support—essentially a raised piece of wood or plastic to change the angle of your laptop—for around £10.
Your mouse should be kept close to you so that when in use the upper arm is relaxed and close into the body, not stretched out. Laptops do include trackpads, though an external mouse is usually preferable for prolonged use in terms of muscle strain reduction. A cheap mouse and keyboard pack is a worthy investment for a laptop if you are serious about writing.
Typewriters offer the least-adjustable keyboard option, though they are much higher angled and force a good posture. They require considerably more muscle work within the fingers than a computer keyboard, so be sure to take more breaks and write for shorter stints.
If you write by hand, the best investment you can make is not a fancy notepad, but a good pen. When picking out a pen, go to a specialist stationery shop and try some out. Fountain pens are better than biros as they encourage you to glide across the page instead of rolling the tip over it, reducing pressure on the wrist. Spend money and you will see the rewards.
There may well be times when you get inspired and are sat there for ten hours non-stop. We’ve all done it and it’s incredibly bad for our bodies, though great for the ego.
For the sake of your back and eyes, take a break. Move around. Stretch or go for a walk. Taking a break doesn’t mean an hour playing games or checking social media. Put your phone down and step away from the devices.
It may actually be worth setting a timer. Limit yourself to 45-minute or hour sessions before taking 10-15 minutes out. Plan a lunch break. Many experts insist this will also benefit your creativity and productivity as you come back fresh and alert.
This is by no means an exhaustive exploration on workstations. Everything I have said is mostly common sense, but I’ve seen this advice in action in the several large businesses I’ve worked for. The only difference is that in a large business you are often getting up and moving around. As lone authors we are more usually glued to our desks all day and we don’t all have the luxury of a perfect workstation. Even if we do, it’s better to make sure we don’t simply sit at it all day, every day. Get out. Move about. Stretch those muscles. You’ll thank me later.
© 2019 Lee Stoddart
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Lee quit the corporate world to write spec-fic and horror. He was twice shortlisted and published by the HG Wells Short Story Competition.