Why Ergonomic Set-Ups Don’t Work

Written by Mitch Starkman

October 24, 2019

OFFICE LIFE

Why Ergonomic Set-Ups Don’t Work

Mitchell Starkman, Physiotherapist
 October 2019

I get asked about the best possible desk set-up and ergonomics almost daily.

There are a multitude of experts writing and promoting countless products to create your office oasis. Many multi-million dollar companies are dedicated to consulting and retrofitting entire office spaces based on ‘ideal ergonomics’.

Yes, I do recommend great products and I even wrote a guide on The Ultimate Guide to Office Ergonomics.

But, I am yet to see a case of carpal tunnel syndrome or constant neck pain that went away or never occurred by having the ‘perfect ergonomic set-up’. Why is that? Well, because Ergonomic set-ups don’t work.  I’m here to argue that though these types of tips, tricks, and equipment can help resolve pain – behavior is the ultimate reason why these issues are resolved. 

Let me give you an example. Take a look at this photo of a woman at her desk.

She has an external keyboard and mouse – great. She has her monitor elevated to eye level – great. However, she’s still hunched over from her spine like a lazy camel. Now, let’s say we were to put an amazing ergonomic chair behind her like the inexpensive Amazon Made Chair. Do you think that will magically straighten up her back? Maybe if we tied her down to it! And if we did somehow manage to fix her to the chair behind her, do you think over the long term a perfectly erect spine is the way to go? I don’t. 

So Do Ergonomic Set-ups Work Or Not?

Look, I’m not saying that ergonomic set-ups don’t help – they do. But don’t be fooled – they don’t fix anything. It’s your personal behavior at your work station that is going to make all the difference. 

Your work set-up can set you up for success. It can position your body in ‘perfect biomechanics’ for you…if you weren’t a human and moved.  Here is what I mean. If an ergonomic specialist assesses you at your work station – they ask you to sit upright in a what’s come to be known as “perfect posture”. You know what I’m talking about, chest held high and shoulders back like in a late 90s military movie. 

Then, once you are in this ‘perfect posture’, they fit your workstation to support you hereThat means they are going to support your lumbar back, and shoulders so that you are held up in this ‘perfect posture’. But is this really a solution?

I don’t think so. And here is why. As I mentioned earlier, you’re a human, and as a human, you like to move. Leaning from one elbow to another, arching all the way back in the chair, falling forward onto your elbows – our body craves movement. 

So, even though you’ve had a ‘customized ergonomic set-up’ that the rest of the world should envy, nothing about you has really changed. You’ve just been prompted up into somewhat of a ‘better’ position. But over the long term, what that really means,  is that you’re being held in place and you’re fancy chair or desk is really acting like a cast As soon as you move out of that position – it’s no longer effective.

Now let me ask you a question. If your arm was in a cast for 6 weeks after breaking it, would you challenge your friend for an arm-wrestle the day you got it off? Of course not – because you don’t want your arm to snap! The muscles have obviously gotten weaker over the time in the cast, and you’re going to work to strengthen them before you show your friend whose boss. 

The problem is that people don’t apply the same principles when it comes to their ergonomic set-ups. By supporting yourself in a ‘perfect posture’, we are essentially telling our core muscles to go on vacation. More back support really means a stronger cast, which really means weaker muscles! 

Conclusion

So the next time your neck is feeling a little bit tight, and you go on a spending spree looking for the perfect chair, desk or monitor to fix you – stop and think what behavior am I doing that is contributing to this and how can I change that. 

Then ask yourself, what is the best price of equipment I can purchase, or expert I can talk to help me fix this issue. 


My experience is that most folks do the opposite and have often spent hundreds if not thousands before ever even walking into my office with the problem that their magic ergonomic set-up was unable to solve! 

At the end of the day, do ergonomic set-ups help? Absolutely. They help by promoting better position and behavior, but don’t be fooled – they alone do not make the change. 

So what really works? Well, stay tuned for our next post to find out!

Authored by:

Mitch Starkman

Mitch Starkman

Physiotherapist and Founder

A Toronto-based Physiotherapist with a passion for sports, orthopedics, and human movement. Mitchell’s goal is to understand how the site of pain is impacted by the entire body – rather than pinpointing a specific disturbance. He is also the founder of DeskJockeyPhysio.com - a website geared toward giving people the tools they need to self-manage, treat and prevent their injuries.

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