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March 16, 2015

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It’s not your chair, it’s you


When my repetitive strain injury became too painful to ignore anymore, I was using a top-of-the-range ergonomic chair, specially designed for computer use.

I still got injured.

Why? Because no chair can prevent musculoskeletal disorders such as repetitive strain injury.

Back then, I sat with my legs crossed – Buddha style – up on the chair. At the time, I thought this position was ok, because it felt comfortable.

Not anymore. Now I know that how you use your chair is more important than what chair you use.

“The next posture is the best posture,” says Galen Cranz, professor of architecture at University of California Berkeley and author of The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design.

Cranz is a big proponent of moving – often – and changing chairs as much as possible throughout the day. In this podcast, she talks about the chairs she has in her home – a huge variety, and she moves between them regularly (as well as sitting and lying down on the floor).

Cranz is also an instructor of the Alexander Technique. This discipline teaches people how to sit, thus taking the responsibility for comfort and safety away from the chair completely. Here’s a blog by Alexander Technique teacher Adrian Farrell where he explains, “a chair is an inanimate object, it is incapable of ‘doing’ anything, let alone taking responsibility for you”.

We should all take a lesson from Farrell and Cranz – especially at the office.

In an ideal world, we’d all know how to sit, and we’d have many different chairs at our disposal, enabling us to change at least every 20 or 30 minutes, alternating with periods of standing, squatting, even sitting and lying on the floor like Cranz. (In this utopia, we’d all have the brand new iWatch too – reminding us to stand up.)

In my experience doing workplace assessments, the office workers I talk with find the idea of switching chairs…well, a bit weird. And most people think they know how to sit already.

Also, even if employees were willing to rotate chairs, most offices don’t have a big selection on hand, and people are often territorial about the chair they do have.

So short of changing chairs a lot, and giving everyone Alexander Technique (though I do recommend both), what can businesses do with regards to chairs to protect their employees? What chairs should they buy?

A good chair for use with computers and other digital devices need only meet a few basic criteria:

  • A stable base supported by five legs with castors that glide smoothly
  • Fully-adjustable components (preferably separate from each other), including height, backrest and seat pan
  • Instructions (preferably a live demonstration delivered by the salesperson) on how to adjust the chair
  • And Farrell adds (and I agree), that the surface of the seat pan must be stable, ie, a stretchy fabric won’t give enough support to the sit bones

Practitioners of Alexander Technique may advise against using back support at all. But until you’ve got several years of this technique under your belt, and understand how to sit on your sit bones, you’ll need some help from a chair with back support, particularly when typing, mousing, scrolling, etc.

Here are some things to keep in mind when sitting in your computer chair and using your computer and other digital devices:

  • Use the backrest as a guide (ie, feel your shoulders against it) to remind yourself to keep your shoulders upright rather than hunching forward – a good reason to get a chair with a backrest for the whole back
  • Face your monitor straight on, i.e. don’t twist your trunk
  • Adjust your chair so that your arms are at a right angle to your desk when sitting in your chair
  • Feet should always be flat on the floor (or a footrest) once the chair is at the right height to the desk
  • Take frequent breaks and during those breaks, move as much as possible

What if you want to try a seating option other than a computer chair? For example, some people like to sit on a Pilates ball or use a kneeling stool. That’s ok, but make sure you only do this in short bursts, say 20 or 30 minutes at a time. Then return to a more ergonomically-sound chair in between, especially during periods of heavy content creation.

Never forget: no chair will keep you free from pain if you don’t get up and move. And the longer you’ve been sitting, typing and tapping, the more pain you are likely to encounter over the years.

In The Chair, Cranz writes, “We need better objects and we need to take responsibility for how we use ourselves while using them.”

So get a good computer chair, but remember it’s not the chair, it’s you.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.


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Anna Glover
Anna Glover
9 years ago

I like this article as it challenges us to think beyond the one size fits all solution. I’m also probably not alone in conducting DSE assessments on people who start by telling me that all they need is a new chair. I’ve also had sales people tell me that if I bought such and such a chair for everyone all my DSE problems would go away. Its good to know the basic requirements.The other positive note here is that Raquel suggests that people can contribute to their own well being by standing up and moving around. I always like to… Read more »