Are Ergonomic Chairs Actually Better?

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Introduction

Ergonomics is a term that keeps growing in popularity. As concerns about repetitive stress injuries and other workplace related health issues grow, more people are taking an interest in the subject. 

Ergonomics is also known as human factors. It is a scientific discipline that seeks to understand the interactions of humans and other elements of a system. Ergonomics is also about applying knowledge to design so that human well-being and system performance can be optimised.

Despite the attention that the topic of ergonomics has received, some question whether or not there is real value in the concept.

Many business owners and remote workers are also put off by the costs involved in redesigning their offices with ergonomic furniture and systems.

If you have ever wondered if ergonomic chairs offer benefits not found in traditional office chairs, here are some of the facts.

What is an ergonomic chair?

One early ergonomic chair, the Ergon Chair, was invented in 1976 by Bill Stumpf, a Herman Miller designer. It had adjustable height and tilt, unique spine support and even five-point castors. 

It was designed with the motive of improving comfort for the body while preserving physical well-being.

This design intent is what defines an ergonomic chair. The designs of ergonomic chairs draw on several fields of study, with the aim of making work safer and more efficient. Some of these disciplines are Biomechanics, Physiology, Anthropometry and Mechanical engineering. 

In fact, Bill Stumpf, the Ergon Chair inventor, crafted his creation through his study of Orthopaedics, and using data from time lapse photography of office worker movements.

With that said, you may have seen a variety of ergonomic chairs. That’s because there is no one way to make an ergonomic chair. To do that would deny the basis of ergonomics itself. 

That is, the tools used by each worker must be tailored to the individual needs.

What makes ergonomic chairs better?

An ergonomic chair, when used as part of an ergonomic workstation, and with ergonomic training, may help prevent discomfort from sitting for long hours during the day. 

Ultimately, some find the improvement in posture helps prevent workplace related health problems.

What’s so wrong with sitting?

When you add up your eight hours or more of sedentary work, with the other times of sitting outside of work, sitting takes up most of your day. Think of the most common posture you assume while commuting, eating, watching television, and relaxing. 

On average, you are sitting for 13 hours each day. That’s 54% of your 24 hours. 

But is sitting so bad? The answer is more or less, yes. Although sitting feels less strenuous than standing or walking, it strains the lower back. 

Long hours of sitting are also well known for being associated with other health problems [1].

Some health problems that are caused by a sedentary lifestyle are:

  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome
  • Increased risk of death from cancer and cardiovascular disease

Metabolic syndrome is a group of related conditions including high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels.

Traditional chairs have their limits

You may be assuming that your aches and pains after a long day at work are normal. 

However, poor posture made worse by poor ergonomic design of your workstation, are often to be blamed.

Let’s look at some of the problems inherent in traditional chairs.

Lack of adjustability

Some find traditional chairs can encourage bad posture and put undue strain on their spine.

Back pain

The incidence of lower back pain is rising as sedentary work and lifestyle continue to increase. Traditional office chairs lack appropriate backrests to provide support for the entire back.

Neck pain

Office workers often complain of stiffness in the neck and shoulder region. Traditional chairs lack headrests and increase the risk of these complaints.

Hip pressure

Traditional chairs are hard and can put unnecessary pressure on your hips. They do not provide sufficient padding and depth so the hips lack support, and are subjected to stress and pressure.

Poor circulation

Traditional office chairs may not permit a 90-degree angle to allow proper circulation in the legs. Good circulation prevents your legs from becoming swollen or getting numb.

Higher stress levels

Uncomfortable traditional chairs affect the morale of workers. Having to deal with constant aches and soreness increases stress and makes workers more likely to be distracted on the job. 

Let us now see how ergonomic chairs can help address these problems.

Adjustability

Traditional office chairs are not designed to be optimal for everyone, even though each person has a different height and weight. On an ergonomic chair, the arms, seat, and back of your chair move independently. You can also change settings like seat tilting. 

This empowers you to keep yourself at the right level to work. Your arms will be parallel to the floor, with your head parallel to your screen to avoid eye and neck strain.  

Lumbar support

The backrest is one of the most important parts of an ergonomic chair, since back pain is one of the most common workplace complaints and reasons for absence. 

Ergonomic chairs use an S shape that promotes a healthy posture, rather than a vertical surface seen in a regular chair. This allows an ergonomic chair to support the natural curvature of the human spine. 

Ultimately good lumbar support keeps you positioned more comfortably, which some find helps them avoid back pain. This is not a feature in a standard chair. 

Appropriate armrests

The armrests of an ergonomic chair help reduce muscle tension, help you maintain good posture, and facilitate moving between sitting and standing. 

The right armrests can reduce the strain of typing and keep circulation at its optimum.

Comfortable cushioning

Breathable materials are a feature of some ergonomic chairs. By preventing sweating and stickiness, comfort is assured and a sense of well-being is provided. 

Padding is also thick enough and of high quality so there is no deformation over time. This helps with comfort and reduces pressure on the hips and back.

Evidence for ergonomic chairs

There are some research findings that support the case for ergonomic design, and by extension, ergonomic chairs.

Research suggests that “prolonged sitting or standing, static posture and uncomfortable back support” are all associated with lower back, shoulder and upper back pain [2].

Ergonomic chairs can mitigate this by improving back support. They can also facilitate dynamic postures through recline or dynamic adjustment functions.

Therefore, they may be helpful for working more comfortably.

Do you need an ergonomic chair?

The evidence suggests that ergonomic chairs may be helpful. If they are paired with a holistic plan to work ergonomically (i.e. taking regular breaks, varying positions, etc), they can be especially useful. However, will everybody need one?

The answer to that is determined on a case by case basis. It depends on how long an individual spends sitting. 

If you find you are spending more than half of your work hours sitting at your desk, you might benefit from an ergonomic chair.

Final thoughts

Company managers can choose to add ergonomics programs to their workplaces. These programs are aimed at adapting the workplace to a worker, based on factors such as:

  • the job description
  • the required tasks
  • the physical makeup of the employee assigned to those tasks. 

Along with training to avoid poor body mechanics (like slouching while sitting), prolonged activity, repetitive motions, and fatigue, an ergonomic chair is a very practical addition to an office space. 

Research findings continue to elevate ergonomic chairs from the level of indulgence, to a necessity that can boost productivity and sustain good health. 

They can make a difference, but many of their benefits are seen only with long term consistent use.

References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6465323/#:~:text=However%2C%20participants%20who%20reported%20sitting,2.37)%5D%20than%20their%20male

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6465323/#:~:text=However%2C%20participants%20who%20reported%20sitting,2.37