Ergonomics: Monitors

When people talk about ergonomics, the usual place to start is desk height, and we will get there, promise. But I want to start with something that is integral to your ergonomic set up – your monitor.

Having your monitor in the wrong position can result in you having your head, neck, and shoulders in awkward positions for extended periods of time. Examples include having your chin lifted because you are looking up, twisting in your neck or upper body, and having your head and upper body bent forward.

We know that poor monitor setups can lead to pain in your neck and shoulders. But did you know it can also affect your eyes? Poor monitor set up can lead to eye irritation, blurred vision, dry burning eyes, eye strain, and of course headaches.

We have all fallen victim to poor monitor setup. It is the downside of living in the Laptop age. More and more companies are assigning users laptops instead of the clunky desktops, and we are using those laptops in all kinds of situations. More often than not, the use of our laptops is in direct violation of standard ergonomic principles.

1 – Lighting & Glare

If you’ve ever taken your laptop and attempted to work outside in direct sunlight, you know how difficult it is to read anything on your screen due to the glare. You will squint, angle yourself to block more, hunch over your screen – and all of it is bad. Yes there are screen covers you can get to cut down the glare, but even with, you are still straining your eyes.

But have you considered glare at your normal workstation? More an more companies are doing bright open concept offices with floor to ceiling windows in every direction. And while this is great for the view, it isn’t necessarily great for you. Bright light directly behind your screen can cause eyestrain and bright light directly behind you can cause glare. So what do you do?

If you can – place your monitor in a location that eliminates the glare on the screen. Try placing yourself at a right angle to the light. You can angle your screen or get a anti-glare screen cover. If that doesn’t work try closing the window blinds or turning off some of the lights.

At my last office, I put in a request to my HR to have the fluorescent bulbs taken out above my desk. There was so much other light that it barely made a difference to the office, but it was a big help when it came to my monitor setup.

At home, close the curtain or blinds. For me, my workstation is right near the front door which is full of windows. We rent, so putting up a curtain rod on a door was not an option, so we used the big command hooks to hold up a curtain rod – quick, simple, and damage-free. When I am done, (or we have guests coming over) – I simply take the curtain down and roll it up and stick it in the closet.

But be careful you don’t go too far. Your eyes will also hurt if there is not enough light. Working in an environment that is too dark can lead to eye damage and headaches. Think of the goldie locks principle – you are looking for that “just right” setting.

So to sum it up:

  • Be good to your eyes
  • Avoid the glare
  • Don’t work in Super-Bright Light or in the Dark

2 – Location, Location, Location

If you are working on a laptop at a station – invest in an external mouse and keyboard so you can think of your laptop as just another monitor that you can optimize it the location of.

A) Location – Distance Away

Did you know that your monitor should be at least an arm’s length away from you? Studies show that the monitor should be at least 20 inches (50 cm) from your eyes— this is about the average adult’s arm’s length.

We spend all day with our phones, tablets, kindles, iPods, and laptops right up close to our face. The reality is that the bigger the screen the more distance you should have between it and you. An arm’s length should allow you to view the entire screen without too much twisting of your head and neck.

B) Location – Angle to you

Speaking of twisting — If you only have one monitor it should be directly in front of you and facing you, not angled to the left or right.

If you use more than one monitor there are 2 main options and they depend on how much you use each monitor.

If you have 2 monitors and use them equally (about 50/50):

  • Place both monitors as close together as possible in front of you.  The point where they meet should be centered to you. Start with them on a straight line, then angle in the outside corners, aiming for a semi-circle.

If you have 3 monitors:

  • Start with one monitor directly in front of you and centered. Place the other monitors on either side and then angle them in, aiming for a semi-circle.

If you have 2 monitors and use one more often (about 80/20) :

  • Place the monitor you use most directly in front of you as if it was a single monitor.
  • Place the secondary monitor on one side, and angle in like your would if you had three creating half of a semi-circle.
  • You may find one eye is more dominant than the other.  Place the secondary monitor on the side of your dominant eye.

C) Location – Height

If the monitor is too low, you will crane your neck forwards, if it’s too high you’ll tilt your head backwards and either way end up with neck/shoulder pain. So where to start?

According to ergonomics expert and professor Dr. Alan Hedge, “When you are seated comfortably, a user’s eyes should be in line with a point on the screen about 2-3” below the top of the monitor casing (not the screen). Sit back in your chair at an angle of around 100-110 degrees (i.e. slight recline) and hold your right arm out horizontally, your middle finger should almost touch the center of the screen. From that starting position you can then make minor changes to screen height and angle to suit. Research shows the center of the monitor should be about 17-18 degrees below horizontal for optimal viewing, and this is where it will be if you follow the simple arm extension/finger pointing tip. You actually see more visual field below the horizon than above this (look down a corridor and you’ll see more of the floor than the ceiling), so at this position the user should comfortably be able to see more of the screen. If the monitor is too low, you will crane their neck forwards, if it’s too high you’ll tilt their head backwards and end up with neck/shoulder pain. “

If you have an external monitor or are working on a desktop getting this height is easy. There are lots of risers out there for purchase and they fall into 3 categories – monitor arms, adjustable risers and static. Arms are great if you are going to be constantly adjusting height of your monitor. This is especially good if you are sharing this work station with someone else. Not every desk is set up to support arms and most HR departments I’ve had wouldn’t cover them. So I recommend the adjustable risers. The most common has legs like legos that you can stack to get your desired height. If you aren’t sure what height to get, or are at home and want to save a little try using hardback books to start. This will let you fine-tune the height you need. (For the record, my external monitor sits on top of the Alton Brown Good Eats 3 volume cookbook set. I invested instead in a fancy adjustable height riser for my laptop that collapses flat for travel)

The other option of course is to adjust the desk up so that your monitors at the right height and have a lower keyboard tray. We will go over that when we talk about keyboards later.

So to sum it up:

  • Arm’s length away
  • Centered on your body
  • Top of the screen just below eye level

3 – Screens

  • Update your screen. Just because your monitor from 1995 still works doesn’t mean you should still be using it. Good quality screens do not have to be super expensive. You are looking for one that makes everything have sharp edges. This makes it easier to read.
  • More is not always better. Just because you can read it at that resolution, does not mean you should. If you need to see the whole page, sure. But when it is just you working on things – be nice to your eyes. Adjust your resolution or zoom so that the characters are comfortable and clear. We get into the habit of constantly trying to fit everything on the screen, and often it just leads to squinting and tired eyes.
  • Consider centering what you are working on. Try and keep your plane of view in the center of the monitor rather than at the top or bottom of the screen.
  • Invest in blue-light reflective lenses. We all know that it’s a good idea to periodically have your eyes checked by a qualified professional. But did you know that even if you are 20/20, you can qualify to get glasses through your vision insurance? Talk to your optometrist about getting glasses specifically to wear while working on a computer. That white background behind all the text is full of blue light. I have glasses specifically for working on the computer. I can still see without them, but my eyes hurt at the end of long days if I don’t wear them.

Wrapping it up

Remember ergonomics is a CONSTANTLY changing thing. If any screen adjustments feel uncomfortable then change them until the arrangement feels more comfortable. Reposition the screen to maintain an optimized view: rotate, change height and extend/retract as necessary.

If you want to learn more about monitor ergonomics check out these additional resources:

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