What "Ergonomics" overlooked: You

We’re sorry to kill your buzzword, but the adjective “ergonomic,” currently attached to everything from shower fixtures to vegetable peelers, doesn’t mean what you think it does.

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There’s a very good chance you’re reading this while sitting in what you hoped would be The Perfect Ergonomic Chair. The molded-foam seat is lovingly cupping your buttocks while holding your thighs just so. The lumbar support is brawny, the armrests adjustable. And you’re holding yourself to the prescribed 90-degrees—arms, hips, knees, all at that sharp right angle. 

These days, everything from shower fixtures to vegetable peelers and baby carriers are being sold as “ergonomic.” But despite all the hype, the E-word might not mean what you think it does.

The truth is, we’ve been duped into believing that “ergonomic” and “good for you” are the same. But if you look up “ergonomics” in the dictionary, you’ll find this: The study of people’s efficiency in the work environment.”

Notice that there’s nothing in there about your personal health, happiness, or well-being?

In this post, we’ll take a brief look at how “ergonomic” mistakenly became synonymous with “healthy,” and why desk-bound workers are so susceptible to pain and chronic illness. 

Along the way, we’ll highlight where progress has been made, culminating with the latest insights on how to create active, movement-based workplaces that bring out our best at work. 

Finally, we’ll offer five proven changes you can make in your workplace to boost  health and wellbeing, and help make our work life part of living our best life.

We've been duped into believing that "ergonomic" and "good for you" are the same.

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We've known for centuries that "sitting disease" is a thing.

Way back in the 1700s, Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini, considered the father of occupational medicine, observed that people whose work kept them active, no matter how physically stressful it was, fared better than those in more sedentary jobs that involved prolonged or static postures. 

A century later, Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot weighed in with his “Treatise on the Health of Men of Letters,” explaining that deskbound workers suffered from poor circulation and engorgement of their organs. Bad posture and lack of exercise, he posited, made them susceptible to hemorrhoids and dropsy, a dangerous swelling, usually of the arms or legs.

And it seemed like people were listening. As late as 1851, only 44,000 people were performing administrative work. Sitting at work was basically unheard of. Craftspeople stood at their workbenches. Bookkeepers stood at tall tables in the countinghouses. Businesses were small, with no more than a few dozen employees.

Even the first executive armchair, presented in 1851 at the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry of All Nations in London, was focused on movement. A springy joyride, it swivelled, bounced and tilted in every direction.

But then came the industrial revolution... and some serious sitting. 

As early as the 1870s, the number of sedentary workers had doubled to 91,000. The good news was they still sat on stools, which were just uncomfortable enough to require people to get up and move their bodies as they worked. 

At the same time, the race to create a commercial typewriter was on. By the turn of the century, John Thomas Underwood’s model would break free from the pack, selling millions over the next couple decades. It was the beginning of the end for active work.

The modern office began to shape itself around this emerging technology, which meant more workers sitting, and more furniture designed so typists could do their thing fast.

They were taught to position themselves upright and stiff (on flimsy chairs, no less) so that they could summon the necessary mechanical force to hammer the keys quickly and correctly. This marked the birth of the 90-90-90 sitting position, with elbows, knees and hips all bent at right angles. The truth is this severe positioning, while once effective, actually cuts off blood flow through the body, shortens leg muscles, and forces the spine into an unnatural curve.

No matter how much our technology has evolved past the typewriter, our commitment to sitting all day in this 90-90-90 position is still considered “ergonomically correct” for keyboard users today. And we’ve suffered tremendously for it.

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No matter how much our technology has evolved past the typewriter, our commitment to sitting all day in this 90-90-90 position is the same today.
And we've suffered tremendously for it.

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Faster, faster, faster: How efficiency became our obsession.

In the early twentieth century, Frederick Taylor, followed by his proteges Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, created a powerful movement to eliminate all wasted action in the workplace to  achieve “maximum efficiency.” First used on the factory floor, it quickly took hold in the modern office. Desks were formed into rows upon rows (nicknamed “Taylorist rows”) so that workers could be easily watched by managers in order to monitor break times. Everything from bathrooms to water coolers to supplies inched closer and closer to those desks. If you were moving, you weren’t working hard enough. And if you weren’t working hard enough, you better believe the boss —now cozy in his private office—would soon find someone to replace you.  

Some bright spots. Ahead of their time, but ignored.

A few designers saw that this approach wasn’t working.

In the 1950s, Robert Propst and George Nelson’s "Action Office" designed furniture into modular systems, with partitions that could be shifted depending on the task, allowing employees to work in collaboration and dial back the counterproductive hierarchy of  private offices. This might have been the first truly modern office, where design aesthetics met progressive ideas about human needs. A few cutting-edge workplaces adopted this model, but ultimately it flopped. And worse: it was bastardized. Instead of setting up flexible, flower petal-shaped work pods, adjoined at 120 degree angles to encourage collaboration, most companies settled for the Action Office’s Frankenstein monster and installed acres of partitions at right-angles, marking the birth of the cube farm.

In the ’80s, Galen Cranz and Peter Opsvik, among others, tried to put things right by pointing out that our addiction to sitting all day in the name of productivity was hurting our bodies. They argued that if we could rethink sitting and chair design, we could all work with less pain and injury. In her 1984 book, The Chair, Cranz wrote: “Short of sitting on a spike, you can’t do much worse than the standard office chair.” But her ideas were considered avant-garde, and went largely ignored. 

The world also ignored Peter Opsvik when he introduced his radical Capisco chair in 1984. Opsvik and his colleagues were among the first to consider the idea that support could come from below rather than from behind, and that a healthy spine could, and should, take care of itself. [Capisco and Opsvik’s Balans kneeling chair remain pillars of Fully’s portfolio of active sitting chairs. More on that later.] 

Opsvik and his colleagues were among the first to consider the idea that support could come from below rather than from behind, and that a healthy spine could and should take care of itself.

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What followed was pain, and we tried to fix it in every way except getting people moving.

The wrong answer to the right question: "Ergonomics"

By the 1970s, the modern office had reached a major turning point. The introduction of video display terminals—machines even larger than typewriters—meant each individual workstation was ballooning to a tremendous size. These displays evolved into our modern-day computer screens. The line between manager and typist disintegrated, and we evolved from a few hundred thousand typists to tens of millions, most of whom had no training, which meant their posture was even worse than the 90-90-90 bad.

Many millions of those people ended up in pain, and we tried to help in every way except by getting them moving. Because, hey, if you were moving, you weren’t being optimally productive, right?

Meanwhile, doctors and researchers had identified “excessive biomechanical load on the joints”referred to as “wear and tear”as the cause of office-related aches and pains. 

What would take the load off? Padding! The Ergon Chair, debuting in 1976, was padded to the hilt and equipped with useless lumbar support. It was designed to make it unnecessary for a person to support their own body, allowing for maximum productivity and limiting “wear and tear.”

Other office furniture manufacturers followed suit with their own marshmallow-soft chairs that, in theory, were supposed to maintain the natural arch of the spine. But in practice it encouraged the user’s pelvis to slide forward, hunching the spine into a shrimp-like position.

Chief among the imitators was William Stumpf and his Aeron, dubbed the first “ergonomic” chair. The Aeron succeeded in making a bad sitting posture really comfortable so that people stayed put—and subsequently lost muscle tone.

With Aeron came a flood of even more untested ergonomic products (including a million Aeron knockoffs) and a new brand of specialists—known as “ergonomists”— who offered design services that were really focused on efficiency, not on real well-being. 

Nothing had changed. We were still sitting in 90-90-90 positions in offices built around the typewriter, using products meant to keep us working for eight straight hours, and the pain kept increasing.

By the end of the century, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health announced that nearly half of all U.S. workers could become “vulnerable to Repetitive Stress Injury” from “forceful exertions” at the keyboard.

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We were still sitting in 90-90-90 positions in offices built around the typewriter, and the pain kept increasing.

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A movement toward movement

In 2014, endocrinologist James Levine broke through all this noise with his anti-sitting manifesto,Get Up: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.” He coined the term “sitting disease” and explained that no amount of exercise could counteract the effects of sitting for eight hours a day. 

It caught the attention of the media, and the public started paying attention to the idea that sitting all day was the source of not just our pain, but of chronic, life-threatening illness. Suddenly, visionaries like Cranz and Opsvik who had been warning the world about sitting for decades, had the platform they deserved. Scientists rushed to explore their ideas, and we started to rethink our work. Standing desks became a coveted workplace perk. 

But it's not about standing all day, either.

It became clear that parking in any static position, day after day, isn’t good for you, whatever the position. Moving is what matters. In fact, every single minute of activity helps, according to Health and Human Services’ “Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.” 

At long last, the working world understands that that well-being and productivity go hand in hand. Both depend on movement, varying our work environments, taking regular brain breaks, and making social connections. We’re starting to see people not as just “workers,” but whole human beings with a connection between mind and body.

Scientific evidence is growing: Nico Pronk, a professor at the Harvard T.H, Chan School of Public Health and chief science officer at Health Partners, says the most important economic engine we have is ”People coming to work and taking good care of themselves so they can be optimally productive. It’s a business strategy. When there’s a culture that provides a workplace that’s full of joy, when people like coming to work, that’s very good for the health of the company.”

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"When there's a culture that provides a workplace that's full of joy, when people like coming to work, that's very good for the health of the company."

Healthy people feeling their best and finding their "flow" at work? Yes, please. 

Let’s stop thinking something labeled “ergonomic” is going to fix all of our workplace pain. Better yet, let’s actually redefine ergonomics to mean what we’ve wanted it to mean all along, a way to feel better at work.

We need to think of work not as a place where we go, or something we do, but as an opportunity to bring our full selves and our unique talents and gifts to the world. The most effective and successful companies see employees not as creators of “output,” but as individuals with full lives who contribute the most when they have access to a workplace that encourages their full self to show up, in both mind and body.

Five steps for feeling good and finding your flow at work:

1) Dial in your personal workspace

Your desk. It all starts here. The ideal workspace doesn't lock you into one position. Adjustable-height desks allow the flexibility to fine-tune your position throughout the day. Your body knows what it wants. When we listen and respond accordingly—sit for a while, stand for a while, lean, stretch, take a break—we find ourselves not only more productive but feeling better, with more energy at the end of the day. Old ergonomics tried to limit movement. Now, we know movement is what we’ve been craving all this time.

Your chair. To break free from the unhealthy 90-90-90, you need a sitting option that engages your body and keeps your blood flowing. There are many healthy ways to sit, depending on your task, your mood, the position of your desk, and your personality, but healthy active sitting has a few key traits:

  • Open hip angle. Many of Fully’s most popular chairs, from Capisco to Tic Toc, have seats that look like saddles. This shape opens the hips into their most natural and healthy position, taking weight off the tailbone.

  • Say no to 90. When we’re weightless, sleeping, or floating in water, our body finds the same position: bent slightly at the waist and knees bent again so that our feet are below our hips—leaving our ears, shoulders, hips, and ankles all aligned. Chairs that mimic this position let our blood flow, and help the spine support our weight, naturally. The Fully Balans is a classic example.

  • Engage the core. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but we have more energy after work when we’ve been using our core muscles all day, rather than letting them go slack. Chairs that add movement to our sitting position make all the difference, whether it’s just a subtle back and forth or something much more fun

Accessories that make a difference. Lastly, raise your monitor to a position that draws your head upright so you don’t have to look down, compressing your neck. Ideally, you'd be able to raise and lower your monitor a little throughout the day.


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2) Give yourself different ways to work

An ideal office environment is one where there’s freedom in how we work, be it solo at our workspace, connected to others, relaxing on soft lounge seating, or collaborating in larger groups in active environments. Luckily, more and more offices are moving toward flexible and active designs that prioritize this kind of balance. But mixing up the way we work is possible in any setting, and switching positions keeps our blood flowing and our minds engaged.

3) Take regular brain breaks

You're busy. We're busy. Everyone is busy. But a raft of research shows that taking regular brain breaks—getting up for a snack, changing your environment, going outside for a walk—not only keeps you healthier and makes you more creative, but also enhances your productivity. These little pauses actually fuel productivity by letting us feel fully charged throughout the day.

4) Make room for social connections.

Whether you work from home or in a crowded office, whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, you can’t be your best self at work without social connections. Taking regular breaks to connect with others re-energizes our bodies and minds, giving us more stamina for our solo work when we get back to it. 

If you work remotely, pick up the phone and call a friend or colleague. Share a frustration or small victory, and listen to theirs. Better yet, walk while you do it. 

5) Work performance relies on whole body health.

It seems obvious that how we feel affects how we think and vice versa. The most surprising thing about the “mind-body connection” is that we ever thought there wasn’t one.

 
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The most surprising thing about the "mind-body connection" is that we ever thought there wasn't one.

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Want more information?

  • Cristina Bank’s group at the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces has published a book called: Built to Thrive: How to Build the Best Workplaces for Health, Well-Being and Productivity. It’s available here

  • Non-profit organizations, like the aforementioned Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces and New York City’s Center for Active Design, are doing great work.  

  • The Center for Active Design operates the Fitwel program in conjunction with two federal agencies, the CDC and the General Services Administration. Fitwel recently published a free and user-friendly handbook called The Office Guide to Promoting Health. There’s also a scorecard.

  • The Center for Active Design published a paper about the benefits of sit-stand desks, a furniture style that Fitwell Certification clients have long incorporated into their building design. 

Are you part of this movement? Fully would love to hear how you’re creating an active workplace. Send us a note, and we’ll share your idea.


Fully offers a very special thanks to author, journalist, and friend, Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, who researched and conducted the interviews, and contributed writing for this piece.