The last 6 months has seen a huge shift in people working from their homes in Barnsley
instead of their usual office environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At Western House
Barnsley physios have seen an increase in musculoskeletal aches and pains which have been
contributed to by less than ideal working environments. Our “home offices” have ranged
from window sills, dining room tables or laptops on our knees. Throw in a couple of toddlers
or a cat during a Zoom call and it doesn’t often make for the best work space set up! The
following article is aimed at how to set up your work station – whether it be at home or in the
office- with some practical tips from our Physiotherapists in Barnsley on how to best avoid
aches and niggles. The NHS also has lots of tips on how to tackle working from home
including taking care of your mental health in these difficult times.
Many workers use display screen equipment(DSE) for more than an hour or so per day and
therefore can be classed as “DSE users”. From a physiotherapy point of view it’s very
important that people are aware of the best ways to set up their workstations. Here at
Western House, the Barnsley physio’s see on a daily basis, that both the set up and how the
individual uses their equipment may significantly contribute to musculoskeletal dysfunction
Lots of further guidance regarding DSE use including a self-assessment tool can be found on
the HSE website.
However, on visiting workplaces us physios frequently see that despite staff members having
completed DSE training and assessments, that they are still unsure if they are sitting in the
best position for them (and we even include physiotherapists in this!!!). The aim of this blog
is not to replace the guidance given by the Health and Safety Executive, but to offer some
practical hints and tips given our experiences in workplaces over the years.
SETTING UP YOUR CHAIR
Most office chairs are adjustable in 3 different ways. The height of the seat goes up and
down, the backrest goes up and down independently of the height of the seat and the backrest moves in and out (towards your back and away from it).
As a general rule the height of the chair should be the first thing you adjust when you do your
quick risk assessment at the start of your shift. You should be able to relax the weight of
your forearms on your desk without pushing your shoulders up or down or having to lean
forward. Your upper arms should be almost directly by your sides with your elbows bent to a
right angle. The height of the seat should be adjusted to allow this to be the case and this
should always be your first step in getting yourself in to the correct position.
You should be able to slide your chair right in to your desk so your abdomen is touching the
desk gently – this almost “traps” you in a good position and prevents you from slouching as
the day goes on.
Once the correct height has been achieved then you can look at adjusting the back rest of the
chair. The rounded portion of the chair (that is more prominent than the rest of the back rest)
is actually the lumbar support and so should be in the small of your back (the curve that goes
in the way in your lower back, roughly below your waist). Chances are that if the back rest is
actually resting on the seat portion of the chair, it’s too low and the lumbar support is only
supporting your buttock, not your back! Don’t be afraid to move this part of the chair – it’s
probably the most common thing we see wrong with a chair, many people just leave the back
rest in the position it arrived from the factory in!
Finally in terms of adjusting the chair, the back rest should be upright and fit in to the
contours of your back with your bottom at the back of the chair (not perching on the edge!),
and so hold you in the upright position between the desk and your chair. Again in practice
when our Barnsley physios do workstation assessments in the workplace we often see the
back rest inclined too far back and the DSE user not even really using it. You should feel that
your back is actually touching the backrest when you are in your upright position – this stops
us slouching during the course of the day.
There is still significant debate as to whether a chair with arms is better than a chair without.
This entirely depends on the individual and the workstation however if the arms of the chair
are stopping you from getting your abdomen up to the desk then you should probably remove
them as they are not necessary. Some chairs come with arms that can be removed or shorted
arms that won’t restrict you from getting very close to the desk and these are sometimes a
good compromise. If you are currently working from home and don’t have a suitable chair
speak to your employer to see if you can arrange collection of your usual office one if safe to
Once you have used the height adjustment on the chair to get your arms in a correct position,
you can now look at the position of your feet, knees and hips. The chair should support a
significant length of the upper thigh (but bear in mind most chairs are designed for the
“average” person and if you are a lot taller, shorter or heavier than “average”, then these are
the few exceptions that may require a different chair to a standard office chair).
If you were to take a photograph of you from the side, once in position your hips should be at
an approximate right angle, as should your knees and you should also be able to place your
feet flat on the floor. If your feet don’t reach the floor in a flat position then you probably
need to look at using a footrest. If working from home a couple of sturdy books or
catalogues under your feet for support.
You should also make sure you have ample room under the desk to move your legs around
(I’ve found all sorts under desks when doing workstation assessments, including the
This is the one fact that we all tend to refrain from doing our DSE training – that the monitor
should be the distance of your middle finger away when your arm is held in front of you.
This doesn’t really require much explanation except to say that it’s important to do this
measurement once you have already set your chair up in the correct position and have your
bottom to the back of your chair and your abdomen gently touching the desk.
If you use 2 screens at the same time it’s common practice to have one slightly offset against
the other depending on which you use the most.
A number of us are using laptops at home. When placed on a work surface these can cause
neck pain due to the increase in bending to look at the screen. One suggestion is to use an
external keyboard and mouse so that the laptop effectively becomes a screen which can be
elevated on books to reach the correct height.
DESK AND ZONE OF REACH
We can all be a bit guilty of having clutter on the desk but it is important for our
musculoskeletal health that the keyboard isn’t right at the edge of the desk but is pushed back
slightly so that you can rest the weight of your arms on the front portion of the desk. It’s also
worth taking some time to think about what you use most on your desk. If you keep your
elbows at your waist and wave them around over your desk, this is what is classed as the
Primary Zone of Reach and should contain most of the items that you use day to day. The
purpose of this zone of reach is to try to prevent you repetitively making larger movements
and reaching across the desk as this may leave you at higher risk of shoulder and neck pain.
If you find yourself chasing your mouse to the other side of the desk by the end of the day
then it is worth putting something in front of it to prevent this or ensuring you always use
your mouse mat. Again, with the telephone you should be able to pick it up without reaching
too far and also never hold it in the crook of your neck whilst typing – this action gives us
physiotherapists nightmares!! If answering the phone and typing are a regular part of your
job then you should definitely have a headset.
THE DSE USER
Whilst I’ve tried to focus on practical tips for setting up a workstation, I have only covered
the absolute basics here. In addition to your chair, desk, computer and phone there are also
lots of other aids on the market that may help you to do your job whilst minimising your risk
of pain – these include wrist rests, split keyboards, ergonomic mice, document holders,
writing slopes, standing desks and thousands of different models of chairs that are on the
market. However it is very important to say that even if you had every single bit of
expensive office equipment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your symptoms will be cured
or that you won’t develop pain, by far the most important thing you can do is use the
equipment correctly and get up and move around or even just stand from your desk as often
as you can – at the very least this should be once every hour.
Also consider task rotation (for example doing a task that involves being in a different
position after a period of sitting) and try to ensure that you spend some time away from your
desk at lunchtime and maybe get out for a walk to stretch your legs. If you are working from
home – short breaks away from your work station to put the washing in or make a drink for
example will provide benefit, as will ensuring you take some regular exercise at other times.
Try using a timer or reminders on your phone to encourage you to get up and move
The HSE website has some useful desk based exercises and advice to take account of
working arrangements during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Finally, if you hot desk or use different areas to work then you should run through this little
routine at the start of every shift as a colleague may well have adjusted it to best suit their
needs – this is your responsibility to do every time.
If you are a DSE user and have any ongoing concerns then you should discuss this with your
Western House physiotherapist who can give you much more specific advice regarding your
condition and workstation set up or could even arrange a workstation assessment with you if
your case is of a more complex nature. For further advice or to book a physiotherapy
appointment in Barnsley please contact us at Western House on (01226) 730249.