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  • Writer's pictureKaren O'Keefe OTR/L

The Complete Guide to Desk Ergonomics for the Basic Workstation

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

proper desk ergonomics is essential to long term health

Having the appropriate desk ergonomics for your workstation helps to prevent musculoskeletal pain and injuries while improving your mood, energy, and productivity. Properly individualized desk ergonomics means you have optimized the relationship between yourself and your workstation.

When the appropriate ergonomic design is put into place, you should be unaware of any awkward postures, movements, or other inefficient environmental factors, allowing you to concentrate on your work.

For example, you should not have to hold your head in an uncomfortable position, reach your arms out and away from your body to type, nor should you have to rotate back and forth to access different items at your desk.

Basic Desk Ergonomics

Comfort is one of the most important factors to consider when designing a workstation. A worker’s comfort is facilitated by the ability to maintain a neutral posture while reaching to access frequently used work items.

This can include taking into consideration both vertical and horizontal locations of tools or objects, placement of the keyboard and mouse, height of the computer screen, and type or size of chair and desk.

As mentioned earlier, poorly designed workstations place workers at increased risk of musculoskeletal pain and injury.

Fortunately, ergonomic guidelines do exist and can help determine appropriate desk ergonomics. Unfortunately, these ergonomic guidelines are not always put into action.

Desk Ergonomics Checklist

Here is a lengthy, but important checklist to use to help determine the best desk ergonomics for your workstation:

  • Arrange the computer workstation to promote a neutral posture

    • Head and neck are balanced and in-line with your torso

      • Ears are directly above shoulders

  • Head, neck, and torso facing forwards

    • No twisting is required to view the monitor or other work related items

  • Trunk is vertical or slightly reclined

  • Back is fully supported by the chair

  • Shoulders and arms are relaxed

  • Elbows are close to the body, around 90-100 degrees of elbow bend

    • Forearms should be close to parallel to the floor

  • Wrists and hands should be in a straight line

    • Straight line extends from elbow to wrist, hand, and keyboard or other device being used

  • Thighs should be close to parallel to the floor

    • Hips should be at or slightly above the level of the knees

    • Lower legs close to perpendicular to the floor

    • With sufficient clearance beneath the desk for legs and feet

  • Feet should rest flat on the floor

    • If unable to, then use a stable footrest

  • Use padded or rounded objects over sharp, hard edges

Follow the above checklist to help create an ergonomically friendly desk or workstation. Other factors to consider are the adjustability of your key office items and use of accessories.

Office Space Tips

There are so many different styles of chairs, desks, monitors, keyboards, input devices, and other accessory items that can be used to improve your desk ergonomics. Honestly, it can be pretty overwhelming.

But there are a few easy to follow rules and tips to help you decide on what is best for your workstation and to improve your desk ergonomics:

  • Keep frequently used items within a forearm’s length and occasionally used items within a full arms reach

    • If your keyboard or other input device is too far away, there is an increase in static loading on muscles of the shoulder and upper back, leading to fatigue and pain.

    • Keep your mouse close to your keyboard

  • You may change the amount of bend in your elbow to adjust for how close you need your monitor (do this instead of leaning your head forwards)

    • If you need to be closer to your monitor for precision or acuity work, increase the bend in your elbows, bringing you closer to the monitor

  • If a workstation or desk height is fixed, the chair is the most flexible and most critical piece of equipment to provide adjustability. Therefore, use this to your advantage

    • Chair should have the ability to scoot on the flooring (whatever material it may be)

    • Width and depth to accommodate the worker

    • Back support

  • Have the top of your screen at or below eye level

    • Use a monitor with an anti-glare screen or adjust lighting in the office space as needed

    • Have the screen close enough to the user to avoid having to lean into it to read the screen

  • When considering the shape or style of your desk, tables with cutouts or curved edges may be considered to minimize how far user needs to reach

Other items to consider include forearm supports, like the ones from Morency Rest or Ergoport, adjustable keyboard trays, document holders, reading stands, headsets, monitor arms, anti-glare screens, and alternative keyboards or input devices. Further benefits have also been found from integrating regular breaks and performing alternate job tasks that involve use of different muscle groups.

It is easy to see that comfort in the workplace is not affected by one ergonomic issue alone. Even clutter under the desk or poor lighting can cause people to assume awkward postures.

While the above desk ergonomic recommendations and accessories are great, these are not enough to make a significant impact if a thorough ergonomic assessment is not put into place.

Unfortunately, research shows that employees are not familiar with these adjustments, or the fact that adjustments should even be made. Even if they are educated on the benefits of improving their ergonomics, they may still opt to continue with what they are currently comfortable with.

Appropriate and thorough education and training on desk ergonomics needs to be provided before any checklist, recommendations, or accessories will be beneficial.


Karen O’Keefe, OTR/L has combined her passion for Hand Therapy with the rewards Ergonomics can bring to her clients over the past 32 years. Co-founder of Exeter Therapy Associates and now Access Sports Medicine, she has specialized in Ergonomics in the workplace, along with musculoskeletal and neurological injuries.

Karen is equally passionate about hiking, biking and cooking. She lives with her husband in Kittery, Maine.

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