Why office furniture is not just any furniture

In an article titled, Sitting pretty: After some controversy, the return to the beloved chair, which was published last year, the authors noted that, “In the past few years, a series of articles, study papers and talks seemingly equated sitting with smoking. The source of the debate? Our increasingly sedentary habits, which often includes spending over nine hours per day, 64 hours a week, with our derrières comfortably seated on a chair”.

64 hours a week. That’s about 3,328 hours a year and 13 years in one’s life. To put it in perspective, an article by Leigh Campbell published in the HuffPost in 2017, claimed that humans generally will spend 33 years of their life in bed (26 years sleeping and seven years trying to sleep), which is an awful amount of time spent in a horizontal position. Finding the most solid bed, and the most comfortable and ergonomic mattress is, therefore, essential. But if a poor mattress can affect the quality of one’s sleep, there’s no doubt that badly designed office furniture will have just as much negative impact on your wellbeing.

poor posture is not an issue of weak muscles or laziness, it is an issue of structural misalignment

Certified wellness professional and registered chiropractor Dr Greg Venning, practicing in Cape Town, explains that posture is not how you hold your body up, but rather how your body holds you up. That means poor posture is not an issue of weak muscles or laziness, it is an issue of structural misalignment.

“Poor posture, generally slumping forward, shows a problem with the deep structures of the body (mainly the spine), that has negative effects on all systems of the body like brain, nerves, heart and lungs. Muscle problems will develop secondary to poor posture leading to tightness and weakness in characteristic patterns. The tightness and weakness are not the cause of the problem, they are the result,” says Venning.

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Ok, so office furniture:
what’s important?

“Ergonomics!” says Linda Trim, director at workplace design specialists, Giant Leap. Derived from the Greek words ergon, which means work, and nomos, principle or law, ergonomics refers to the relationship between labour and health. The term was first coined by Polish scientist, naturalist and inventor Wojciech Jastrzębowski when his book titled An Outline of Ergonomics, Or the Science of Work based Upon the Truth Drawn from the Science of Nature was published in 1857.

A popular quote from the book is: “Hail, thou great unbounded idea of work! (…) He who complains against his work knoweth not life; work is an uplifting force by which all things may be moved. Repose is death and work is life!”

Jastrzębowski believed that human work was ultimately good and that by identifying ways to improve work environments, it could be even better for both the employees as well as the employers. According to the International Ergonomics Association, ergonomics promotes a holistic approach in which considerations of physical, cognitive, social, organisational, environmental and other relevant factors are taken into account.

When it comes to ergonomics, one size most definitely does not fit all

Choosing the correct office furniture is important when it comes to optimising ergonomics as it can either aid or hinder our physical wellbeing and productivity. Venning explains that forward posture leads to decreased activity of the frontal cortex of the brain, where high level cognitive functions, such as attention and focus, take place.

“We also see compromised heart and lung function meaning that the brain is not being oxygenated as well as it could (…) Poor posture can wreak havoc on our ability to be effective and efficient in our lives,” says Venning.

When considering office furniture, Trim advises that adjustability is key. “People should go through user management to know how to adjust and use their chair.” She adds that as technologies are changing every year, offices need furniture that can be moved around or changed as needs be.

If the number one ergonomic priority is establishing a good posture and a neutral body position, installing adjustable chairs and desks are the first steps to achieving this. “The more positions a chair and desk can adjust to, the more they can be tailored to the individual using them. When it comes to ergonomics, one size most definitely does not fit all,” notes Trim.

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Although comfort and functionality are key when it comes to creating a productive work environment, innovative design also plays an important role in overall office aesthetics. With a wide range of customisable corporate seating options, South African-based company ChairClub offers ergonomic chairs that cater to both requirements. Consider the Filo rotating office chair’s perfectly positioned controls, aligned for easy adjustment, as well as its well-defined curves and bold angles designed to support you through long hours at the office. Or perhaps the Yutu: a collaborative chair designed to support multiple postures and is available for upholstery in a variety of colours.

“Looking downward at a computer screen, tablet or phone bends or flexes your neck and upper back forward leading to rounded back and shoulders,”

Johannesburg-based chiropractor Dr Warrick Botha explains that height adjustable chairs can help get computer screens to eye level, which further assists in ergonomics of the workspace. “Looking downward at a computer screen, tablet or phone bends or flexes your neck and upper back forward leading to rounded back and shoulders,” explains Botha..

The correct positioning of a keyboard and mouse can also contribute to office wellbeing. Reaching for these elements at a difficult angle could cause employees to lose their neutral body positioning. Trim adds that while these elements are often ergonomic afterthoughts, the proper keyboard and mouse configuration is just as important as posture when it comes to neutral body positioning. Additionally, input cables should be easily accessible as reaching for these during the course of the day may lead to unnecessary fatigue.

Trim adds that lighting and temperature are also ergonomic essentials. While in larger companies it may be tricky to control the light settings within the office, there are applications that help reduce harmful light exposure from computer screens. Downloadable software from Eye Saver filters out blue light to make display colours warm and easier on the eyes, while f.lux enables the colour of a computer’s display to adapt to the time of day from warm at night to brighter (like sunlight) during the day.  

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Just as positioning ourselves correctly is crucial to office wellbeing, so too is movement essential when it comes to increasing our productivity and energy levels in the workplace. “80% of the background activity of your brain is generated through movement of the body, especially your spine,” explains Venning. He notes that in addition to setting desk and chair heights, individuals should take regular breaks and even use a standing workstation if the option is available. Launched at Design Indaba 2015, DeskStand has a wide range of adjustable standing desks that can be easily incorporated into most working environments.

Botha adds that sitting in general, whether with good or bad posture, is not great for your overall circulation.

“Other than your heart, which pumps blood all over your body, muscle contractions squeeze your blood vessels through movement. This muscle activity is also necessary for overall good circulation. Not much of the muscular activity that aids circulation can occur when sitting behind a desk all day.”


Great postures, what does it mean?

Good posture in the workplace essentially leads to increased productivity. As no two humans are built the same, it is important for companies to incorporate multifunctional furniture that can accommodate a variety of shapes and sizes. Botha notes that, over a period of time, bad posture can put excessive strain on the upper back and neck leading to muscle tension and spasms at first and, in some cases, spinal complications later. “A person in pain all day will probably not be able to concentrate or be as productive as a person who is pain free,” he explains.

However, poor posture can have greater effects than resulting in pain. “Bad posture is a health issue and not a back issue,” says Dr Venning. He notes that breathing, digestion, immunity and fertility can all be affected. “There is no system in the body that I know of that is not compromised in some way by a distorted body shape.”

Office chairs with adjustable armrests will help in achieving the optimal positioning of arms and elbows

According to Venning, the key component in acquiring good posture while sitting at a desk is the pelvic tilt. “It might sound odd, but all other factors are secondary. If the seat is flat or tilted down at the back, then your pelvis and spine is tilted down at the back and that makes your body collapse forward.” If the seat is tilted down at the front, the pelvis opens up and the body is lifted, opening the shoulders and bringing the head backwards without using conscious muscle activity. “Often a folded towel can achieve this, otherwise a seat wedge works wonders.”

Other than the pelvic tilt, specific adjustments will need to be made depending on different body shapes and sizes. Office chairs with adjustable armrests will help in achieving the optimal positioning of arms and elbows. Venning suggests that where the elbows are positioned on a chair’s armrest should be just above the height of the desk. Additionally, the keyboard and mouse should be directly in front of you so that your elbows do not need to leave the sides of the body.

Adjustable seat heights allow employees to obtain the correct leg and feet positioning, which is important when it comes to promoting blood circulation. Both feet should rest comfortably flat on the floor with the legs positioned at a 90-degree angle.

Once you have set both your seat and body in the optimal position, it is important to ensure that the screen (either desktop or laptop), is at the correct height relative to you. “The top of the monitor should be in line with your eyes and about arms-length away,” advises Venning. If the screen is too low, it can lead to a slumping, forward posture, which may ultimately lead to joint inflammation and pinched nerves.

With office environments constantly changing and innovating, from sharable workspaces to floating desks, furniture designs need to be updating at similar speeds in order to promote good ergonomics.