Keeping Your Head on Straight when Standing or Walking at Your Desk
For anyone reading this content it’s likely that a majority of your work hours—and much of your personal time—are spent staring at this computer screen. But, if improperly positioned, monitors can spell trouble for office workers by subjecting them to agonizing neck and shoulder pain.
It’s probably worse at your home computer than your office workstation, statistically, as we learned during the pandemic when more than half of all desk workers were relegated to working from home. This isn’t surprising, of course, given that the ergonomic consultants that cruise around most corporate, government and education campuses cannot go into workers’ homes to do the same job there. According to a broad study of WFH computing conducted by the University of Cincinnati’s Ergonomics Department, the vast majority of home users had terrible display screen ergonomics that can ultimately lead to a host of ergonomic injuries.
Thankfully, these posture-related pains are easy to fix, and it begins with the right equipment. An adjustable ergonomic monitor arm should be a staple in any ergodynamic workstation. By the same token, it is a very bad idea to use a laptop without an external monitor for long periods of time. Keeping the neck bent to look at a laptop display is a formula for neck and shoulder pain.
Your monitor should be positioned so your head can be held in a neutral position, not bent forward or backward. You should be able to see the entire monitor area comfortably without tilting your head forward, just by shifting your eyes downward.
The average person’s head weighs 12 lbs, and when your gaze is straight forward your neck and shoulder muscles don’t have to strain to keep it upright. However, for every inch you crane your neck forward, i.e. to stare down at a laptop screen, those muscles need to support an additional 10 lbs. That means if you’re head is tilted forward even 2″ your neck muscles need to support 32 lbs of weight instead of 12.
Also commonly unknown outside of medical and ergonomic circles is that the optic nerves connected to your eyeballs are very short. Think of your eyeballs as being tethered on a very short leash, as in this animated x-ray.
So that means if you have to glance too far down, up, left or right, your head will autonomically move to do so, and if it has to move in that direction for sustained periods of time, neck and shoulder pains ensue.
Bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to computer monitors, even though the trend is very clearly towards wider, panoramic displays. If your monitor is too large you may end up tilting your head forward to see information near the bottom of the display. That’s a no-no. A good monitor mount will let you center the display at the right height and the right distance from your eyes so the top edge of the display is at the 0° line (your eyes looking straight ahead) and the bottom of the display is on a -15° sight line from your eyes.
And how far away should that monitor be? An ergonomic rule of thumb is to keep your monitor at arm’s length. It’s a good place to start and ensures that you don’t wind up with your face flattened against the screen, which is a sure way to feel some eye strain. The larger the display area, the farther back you will need to stand in order to maintain the correct aspect ratio. If you use dual 32″ panoramic monitors, for example, you’ll want to make sure your desktop is at least 30″ deep and you may even want to add a keyboard tray to allow you to stand farther back from the displays.
The Bottom Line
When people walk by your office and get a side view of you on your standup desk or treadmill desk, they should see someone who is standing straight, head held at a neutral position. You should be resting your hands comfortably in front of you on a cushioned padding along the front edge of the keyboard and mouse, with your chest up and shoulders back. An ergonomic keyboard tray designed specifically for standing desks is the perfect companion to an ergonomic monitor arm to minimize the potential for RSIs (repetitive strain injuries).