I have a headache.  My neck has been bothering me for weeks.  And my wrists and legs used to chronically ache. 

Any of this sounding familiar?

I spend hours a day on the computer – for work, for play, to help my kids with their homework and to stay in touch with my mother and sisters and friends.

But I rarely spend any time thinking about how to set up my environment so that the experience of being at the computer doesn’t hurt my body.  I, of all people, should know better.  Before I became a psychologist, I was an interior designer.  Among other things, interior designers spend a lot of time learning about ergonomics: the science and art of making objects work well with the human body and with our own patterns of work.  Good ergonomics is why my new cellphone has the hangup icon exactly where my thumb falls naturally.  It involves both design and the study of several aspects of psychology.

At the time I was studying design, computers were just coming into offices and repetitive stress disorder was first coming to the fore of our consciousness.  They were designing desks with cool monitor stands.  They had workstations where you stood up and kind of perched on stools so you didn’t get sore being in one position all day.  They made all sorts of keyboards (this was before the mouse – but they took that on next).  They were designing special task lighting that put light where you need it (the desk and people’s faces) and not where you don’t want it (your screen).  This was the time when all those cool adjustable desk chairs came out.  That’s why you may have five wheels on your chair and not the old four. 

All of these innovations were developed to make sitting at a keyboard all day more comfortable.  We used to sit at desks and write with pens.  Only secretaries had keyboards.  Our new, computer-centered workspaces would need to be different.

Do we use any of these innovations?  No.  Not really.

Why?  Because we don’t think about it.  Each of the small hassles these innovations are designed to address are small (my neck doesn’t hurt THAT much).  And when it would be easy to solve them by adjusting my workspace, I’m thinking about other things – typing this blog – and not about solving a minor problem.  The pain is just background noise.  And the more chronic it is, the less I associate it with a specific task and the more I think of it as just part of my life – not something to solve. It's just part of getting older.

In other words, because we are not defining an issue as something to be solved, we do not try to solve it.  This is what Bandura, the man who conceptualized social learning theory, would define as an issue of efficacy.  According to Bandura, in order to take action, we need to:

  • Define a goal or a problem as something we want to solve
  • Believe we can change the outcome through our actions
  • Know what action to take
  • Have the opportunity to act

If we don’t  see something as a problem that we can solve, we don’t try to change it.  But computer related stress is something you can start to address in the next 10 minutes. 


I started this post because I realized that my headache was caused by eye strain.  I have bifocals, so I can see my monitor clearly out of the bottom half of my glasses.  To see clearly, I tilt my head back all the time.  I don’t even think about it.  What happens?  My neck hurts. 

I just:

  • Lowered my monitor so the words fall in the part of my focal plane where I could see best.
  • Tilted my monitor back so that the screen was parallel to my face in my typical typing position.  I would never read a book sitting straight up and down in front of me. Why should I read my screen that way?
  • Changed the lighting so I didn’t get any glare.
  • Changed my monitor brightness so it is comfortable.

In the course of writing this post, my headache went away.  You can also adjust the type size on your screen to make it comfortable for you.  Both Macs and Windows machines have really excellent accommodations to match your vision with their monitors.  You just need to use them.


ergonomicsDo your wrists hurt?  When you type, your arms should be comfortably at your side and your forearms should be at right angles to your upper arms.  No dangly hands and especially NO COCKED WRISTS!  Angling your wrists up or down cut off the nerve clusters as well as the circulation.  David Pogue, the technology correspondent for the New York Times, can no longer type for more than 3 minutes because of this.  He does all his writing using a software program that turns his spoken words into text. 

What should you do?  Move the chair height, desk height, or keyboard height so it puts you at the right angle.  Literally, your arm should be at a right angle. 

Laptops are the worst, because we sit them in our (surprise) laps and type at odd angles.  Find a position that is comfortable to you and stick with it.  Take the time to notice that you are in the wrong position and find a better way to sit.  Maybe you need a book on your lap for your notebook to sit on.  Maybe you need a little table to put it on next to the couch.  The point is, think about what you’re doing.


Do your legs and hip joints hurt?  Are you wrapping your feet around your desk chair?  STOP IT!  Unconsciously putting your ankles and feet in awkward positions puts strain on your ankle, knee, and hip joints.  Put your feet on the floor and figure out some way to keep them there.

Do you legs ache?  Mine did, every night when I went home.  I finally realized that the table I kept my monitor on had a bar across it that I was constantly leaning my legs against.  When I would look at them, they had deep indentations in them.  When I changed my monitor stand, I stopped damaging my legs.

Listen to your mother.  STOP SLOUCHING.

Are you slouching right now?  Chronically slouching in your seat will systematically weaken your lower back muscles, making it easier to slouch even more and making you vulnerable to back problems.  Sit up straight and put your lower back against your chair.   Fixing your keyboard height may help your shoulders relax.  So will changing your monitor.


There are lots of good websites and good advice that tell you how to arrange your work environment so that can concentrate on what you need to do and stop being distracted by pain.

But before you take that action, you need to think about the fact that, yeah, my wrists really are sore, and yes, I really can do something about it. 

Once you think about a small hassle as a problem, you can probably find some way to solve it.

And that may be true of other things in your life too. 

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved


One of many good sites on computer ergonomics:


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