Ergonomics for Programmers: A Concise Introduction

As a profession, programmers should be particularly mindful of ergonomics. Having been a frontend developer for up to 12 hours a day, I can personally attest to the health risks posed by such a lifestyle and ultimately chose to leave the industry for that reason.

Analysis of a study conducted amongst IT workers in India has revealed that approximately half of the respondents experienced lower back pain. Shoulder and wrist pain were the second most common Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) reported, following neck pain. This data indicates that the programming industry may be subject to a potentially hazardous working environment.

You don’t want to join these percentages, do you? Try out these ergonomically sound practices for contemporary programmers.

Keep the top of your laptop screen at or slightly below eye level.

Programming often requires long hours in front of a computer, which can lead to neck discomfort. In fact, 30% of those with neck discomfort can develop chronic symptoms, making it the fourth most common cause of disability worldwide. This can have a significant impact on people’s lives and occupations.

Programmers often take advantage of the portability of laptops when working remotely from locations, such as cafes and shared office spaces. However, prolonged use of laptops can be quite taxing on the shoulders and neck.

The low positioning of the screen due to its attachment to the keyboard is one of the main factors that make laptops uncomfortable to use. When using a laptop on most surfaces, the user is required to look downwards at the screen all the time, which can be a difficult and uncomfortable situation.

According to Dr Kenneth Hansraj, a spine surgeon, a 15° forward tilt of the neck can quadruple the amount of weight felt on the neck. Therefore, if this position is adopted for prolonged periods of time, it could have a detrimental effect on posture and cause neck and back discomfort.

As luck would have it, you have a choice between two simple solutions.

  • Investing in a laptop stand to bring your screen to eye level is a cost-effective first step. Prices start from around £20, however, you may wish to spend more on additional accessories for your home office. When the screen and keyboard are both raised, an extra keyboard may be required.
  • When working remotely, it is beneficial to have a laptop with an external display that can be adjusted in height. While one display can suffice, having two is ideal as it allows for a greater field of vision and enables simultaneous tasks to be completed more effectively and efficiently. The monitors should be situated approximately arm’s length apart, with the top line positioned at eye level for optimal viewing. This setup will increase the productivity of a programmer.

Research conducted by Jon Peddie suggests that working with multiple monitors can increase productivity by up to 42%. Therefore, not only are you protecting your wellbeing by connecting your laptop to two external monitors, you are also becoming more productive.

Check your Wrist for Flexion or Extension

Unfortunately, the keyboard is used by every coder, and it is a frequent cause of ergonomic discomfort.

There are two common postures for the wrists while typing.

  • Extension The wrist is flexed upward toward the back of the forearm.
  • Flexion In this position, the wrist is flexed downwards, as opposed to being in an extended position. A common cause of this issue is the use of a laptop on one’s lap with the arms placed on the armrests of a chair.

If wrists are consistently flexed or extended, there is an increased risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) or tendinitis due to occupational activities.

Musculoskeletal diseases (MSDs) involve injury to muscles, nerves, tendons, joints or cartilage. Prolonged flexion and extension can lead to the development of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) or tendonitis. It is important to note that tendonitis affects the wrist tendons, while CTS affects the median nerve.

The most effective desk set-up allows for a neutral wrist posture to be maintained for the duration of the working day. This means neither flexion nor extension should be possible and that a straight line can be drawn from the forearm to the wrist.

The following recommendations will assist you in maintaining a neutral wrist position when typing:

  • A level surface or a small incline away from you is ideal for the keyboard.
  • Adjust the height of your keyboard to be just below your elbows.
  • Don’t rest your hands on the rear legs of a regular keyboard as a laptop does; doing so generates a positive tilt that induces wrist extension.
  • Raise or lower your chair so that your forearms are at a level with the keyboard.

Is That So? Workers aged 35-44 are particularly at risk of developing Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS), which accounts for 32.5% of all Repetitive Strain Injuries sustained in the workplace.

Sit with your back straight in a neutral position.

It has been established that not all chairs are equal in terms of their ergonomic benefits. The term ‘neutral sitting’ is widely used in the field of ergonomics and refers to a chair that is designed to provide maximum comfort and support for the back.

When seated in a neutral posture, all three of your spine’s natural curves are supported, and you have less stress on your back.

I recommend the following neutral sitting positions for programmers who often experience back pain after a lengthy session of coding:

  • The reclined sitting posture is characterized by the trunk being tilted backwards, with the torso supported by the backrest, and the chest and hips open. This exercise requires minimal muscle activation in the back, making it an excellent choice for avoiding back strain. To benefit from a reclined posture, it is recommended to invest in a chair with synchro tilt.
  • A.C. Mandal’s recommended practice of declined sitting has been proven to help reduce the strain on the lower back by distributing a portion of the body’s weight to the thighs. The optimal posture for this position would be for the buttocks to be higher than the knees, the back should remain upright, and the arms resting on the desk. As forward-tilting chairs are not commonplace in the workplace, kneeling chairs and saddle chairs are the preferred alternatives for a comfortable seating position.
  • When seated in an upright position, the spine is exposed to more pressure than when lying flat. To achieve this reclining posture, you may need to invest in a specific computer workstation designed for this purpose, or come up with a creative solution.

According to the Occupational Demands Survey 2023, it is reported that 90% of a developer’s workday is spent seated, the highest of all the jobs surveyed.

It’s Good to See Code Featured Every Once in a While

Over time, even the “optimal” sitting position may gradually reduce blood circulation and put unnecessary strain on the spine. Prolonged sitting can potentially lead to health problems for programmers in the long run.

Standing is a posture which can help to reduce strain on the spine and increase circulation to the lower limbs. Therefore, it is recommended to incorporate this into your daily routine.

Research conducted at the University of Waterloo has demonstrated that an optimal sit-stand ratio is between 1:1 and 1:3, which means you should stand for 15-45 minutes for every 15 minutes of sitting.

Is That So? A recent research indicated that standing and sitting on alternating days helped reduce pain in 54% of participants.

Think about the following to make the sit-stand routine easier:

  • If you prefer to work standing up, you may find a monitor riser or a simple cardboard stand helpful in positioning your computer screen and keyboard at the correct height. Ensure that your display is at the level of your eyes and that your external keyboard is at a height which enables you to maintain a neutral wrist position.
  • If you are starting with this new routine, it is advisable to start slowly and gradually progress to the ideal sit-stand ratio, allowing your body to adjust.

Get a Good Stretch in Once Every Hour

DeskTime, software designed to track employee productivity, analyzed 5.5 million daily records from office workers and found that the most productive 10% worked for 52 minutes continuously, followed by an average break of 17 minutes.

Taking breaks to rest can be invaluable in aiding productivity. In my experience, taking regular breaks helps to ‘reset’ the brain and recharge the body, allowing you to return to work feeling refreshed. Furthermore, workplace stretching can provide a number of additional benefits.

  • Better blood flow means less tiredness.
  • Safety from MSDs
  • Straighter back
  • Enhanced equilibrium and coordination of muscles

Listed below are some stretches to include into your break routine.

Fist to the Fan

The fist-to-fan stretch is an effective exercise for building muscle in the hand and forearm, as well as increasing flexibility in the wrist and fingers. It is a great way to relax and revive your hands and fingers when you need a break from coding.

  • Make a fist and squeeze your fingers together.
  • Relax and open your palms.
  • To the fullest extent possible, spread your fingers.
  • Do this ten times.

Do a Backbend While Standing.

Your circulatory, digestive, and respiratory systems will all get a boost from this stance, and you’ll feel a lot better as a result.

  • Keep your feet hip-width apart and your body erect.
  • Put your hands behind your lower back, palms facing inward.
  • Squeeze your thighs and buttocks while pressing down with your feet.
  • It is recommended that you arch your back as far as possible by rolling your shoulders backwards. To help maintain your balance, it is advised that you lean on your hands.
  • Raise your head and gaze upward.
  • Keep the stance for five full seconds.
  • By exhaling deeply, you may return to the upright posture you were in before.
  • Repeat twice or thrice.

Do the Seated Pigeon Twist if You’re Sitting Down.

The hips might become rigid from prolonged sitting. This stretch will help you combat it by increasing your hip mobility.

  • Cross your right ankle across your left knee as you sit in a chair.
  • Grab your right knee with both hands and draw it in close to you.
  • Draw a big breath in, then turn your upper body to the right while keeping your gaze fixed straight ahead.
  • Get back to square one as slowly as possible.
  • The process is repeated on the reverse.

If you’re looking for more options for stretching at your desk, you won’t be short of options.

Future-Proofing Your Code

Neglecting my health during my time as a programmer was one of my biggest missteps. Taking care of your posture, taking regular breaks, and ensuring you stay active throughout the day are all important steps to avoid any long-term health issues which could potentially lead to a career change.

We would be delighted to hear from any self-proclaimed “code nerds” who are currently looking for a new job. Please rest assured that you have our full attention and we are more than happy to provide any assistance we can.

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