How to position yourself to prevent pain at work

Bad laptop habits and poor posture at desk to blame for many avoidable aches and pains

Brian Crinion is a physiotherapist with a special interest in ergonomics. He heads up the ergonomics section at employee wellness company Spectrum Wellness and spends a lot of his time encouraging people to become aware of how they are sitting at their desks and helping them make changes for the better.

Musculoskeletal disorders are the most commonly reported causes of absence from work in Ireland, with back pain (and mental health issues) the single biggest reason for income-protection claims to Irish Life in 2017.

Corporate America, which has these things down pat, estimates that backache costs companies $34,000 a year per 100 employees.

Back pain, sore shoulders, hip discomfort and stiff necks are all symptoms of bad posture and the culprits include chairs set too low and monitors positioned at the wrong height.


“The problem is that the pains don’t disappear when you leave work,” Crinion says. “The legacy of sitting badly goes home with you and can have an impact on other aspects of your life.

“What starts out as a pain in your knee or your back can escalate to the point where it stops you cycling or walking or going to the gym – all things you may need to do to cope with the stresses of life, so it becomes a double hit,” he adds. “People take great care of their nutrition and fitness but then completely ignore the fact that they’re spending eight hours day hunched over a desk.”

To emphasise the point, Crinion uses the example of sitting in your car. “Nobody drives with the seat in its lowest position and pushed so far back that they have to stretch to reach the gear stick, yet many of us do the equivalent when sitting at our desks,” he says.

“As a physio I saw a constant stream of people with musculoskeletal issues and much of it was down to the impact of entirely avoidable poor posture at work. If companies wanted to do something immediate and positive for their employees’ wellbeing, get someone to look at how people’s workstations are set up and help them become more body aware. A tweak here or there can make a huge difference.”

First in the firing line when it comes to establishing healthy new posture habits is chair height. “People consistently sit too low so they have to raise their arms and arch their backs to reach their keyboards,” Crinion says. “The main reason they do this is because they prioritise their feet and feel they should be on the ground when in fact the starting point should be their elbows which should be at 90 degrees.”


Next in the firing line are monitors. Crinion says the eyes should be level with the top toolbar because the eye line – the point at which we actually view things – is about 30 degrees because we look down to avoid falling. If the monitor is too high or low it affects the neck. Crinion also advises tilting it slightly to improve the viewing angle. If it feels weird and uncomfortable initially, stick with it, as he says it takes three days to get used to any new position.

Things get a bit more complicated for those with bifocal or varifocal glasses. They may have to lower their screen by an inch or two to put the neck in a neutral position. Monitors should also not be farther away than the length of an outstretched arm. “You are the most important person at your desk,” Crinion says. “You should be in your perfect position and everything else moved to suit you.”

Use a laptop all the time? Ease the strain by investing in a separate keyboard and a laptop stand, Crinion advises. “Laptops are fine for short bursts of work, but become problematic for posture when used for long periods. Just look at someone using a laptop. Their necks are down, their shoulders rounded, their backs arched.”

Other bad habits that affect your posture are crossing your legs (at the knee) while sitting at your desk as it creates asymmetry that causes hip problems, and putting documents in front of you and reaching across them to type.

“The arms are heavy. They represent 8 per cent of your body weight and, if you hold them too far away, they will cause strain at the top of your neck and knots in your shoulders,” Crinion says.

Top tips to improve your posture at work

– Sit as close to your desk as possible.

– Position your elbows at 90 degrees to your desk.

– Don’t prioritise your feet. If your feet don’t reach the ground without lowering your chair, use a footrest.

– When looking at your monitor, your eye level should in line with top toolbar. Position your monitor no further than outstretched fingertip distance away.

– Keep your keyboard and mouse close. Don’t stretch to use them.

– Create the same level of ease and seating comfort at your desk as you do in your car.

– Having gone to the trouble of getting everything right, don’t undo all the good work by crossing your legs at your desk.