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Ergonomics is defined as the laws governing work. It is characterized by the interaction between the human and the system, the system being the workstation design, tools and equipment, work environment, workstation organization, and other specific scopes for the job.

Based on this definition, we can label our work experience as “ergonomic” when the system is adapted to fit our needs and capacities, rather than us having to sacrifice them to adapt to the system and processes.

In the office work experience or any computer-based work, the workstation design is mostly identified by the desk and the chair as the regular fixtures of any computer workstation. We already covered the chair requirements for an ergonomic experience here and here, so in this article we shall tackle the desk requirements for an ergonomic experience.

What is an ergonomic desk?

Ergonomic chairs are easily identified by their design and materials, but if you were to imagine an ergonomic desk, you may either think of a sit-stand desk, a height-adjustable desk, or maybe even a regular office desk. In reality, there isn’t a standard ergonomic desk design, as the features that make a desk ergonomic can differ according to your needs and taste.

That being said, here are the most important and common features you should look for in any desk for an ergonomic experience:

  • Smooth edges: one that doesn’t leave scars on your forearms while typing or writing.
Smooth desk edge
Sharp desk edge
  • Sturdy design: many cheaper desks are too light and poorly designed to the extend that you may have to deal with uneven legs. The last thing you need from your desk is to have to lengthen its legs with torn cardboards and folded paper.
  • Wide surface area: if you use anything more than a laptop, consider to have at least 120x60cm desktop surface.
  • Adjustable height or customized height: this is probably the trickiest aspect of desks, as all other features are straightforward and general, while each person may have a different requirement for the desk height.

How to calculate ergonomic desk height?

Most office and computer desks range between 70-75cm in height. This height may be inconvenient for people shorter than 170cm, but also for taller people, so how to calculate the optimal desk height?

The picture above serves as a perfect guide for optimal desk height, where your forearms should rest flat on the armrest and desk. Excessive bending at the elbows can be really annoying and trigger elbow discomfort and pain, which over the long run could transform into an inflammation in the soft tissue called olecranon bursitis (figure below).

Olecranon bursitis. Notice the swelling of the elbow

Following our reference image: to measure your customized and optimal desk height, you will need to measure the distance between your elbow and floor when sitting in a similar posture as the one implied in the demonstration. The distance from your elbow to the floor should be the same distance from the top of your desk to the floor, which will probably range between 65-75cm for most adults.

Distance from desk surface to floor should be almost the same as that from 90-120 degrees bent elbow to floor, regardless if sitting, semi-sitting, or standing

This sitting arrangement should guarantee that your feet lie flat on the floor so you don’t have to put effort into sitting comfortably, your knees bent around 90-120 degrees, your pelvis and back resting comfortably on the seat and back of the backrest, your elbows bent 90-120 degrees and forearms resting flat on the chair’s armrest and desktop to allow for comfortable keyboard typing and mouse clicking.

How to choose an ergonomic desk?

Following the list of features you should look for and the guideline to find your optimal desk height, you have three desk options:

  • Electric height-adjustable desk: these desks are embedded with electrical height adjustment and a cool feature of saving your preferred desk height in case more than one person is using it or if you alternate between sitting and standing.
Electric height-adjustable desk
Electric height-adjustable desk memory buttons

  • Manual height-adjustable desk: an affordable option of height-adjustable desks where you will use a lever to manually adjust your desk height. Very good option for the minimalists who don’t care about sophistication and are seeking budget-friendly options.
Manual height-adjustment
Manual height-adjustment

  • Standard desk with height-adjustable legs: similar to the manual height-adjustable desk, these desks have height-adjustable legs that are more suitable for single users where you adjust them once and for all to meet your preferred sitting arrangement. The only downside of these desks is the inability to convert them to standing desks or to conveniently adjust them between different users, but they are more affordable.
Standard desk with height-adjustable legs
Standard desk with height-adjustable legs

  • Customized desk height: If you are creating your own desk or designing it with the help of a carpenter or through a furniture store that provides customization service, you can order your desk legs with your preferred height. This would eliminate the ability to adjust your desk height later on, and is a high risk if for any reason the optimal desk height was miscalculated, so make sure you get the calculations right from the first time.
Luxurious desks and home offices can benefit from customizing the desk height prior to manufacturing

Conclusion

In conclusion, ergonomic desks can be detected through the features they provide rather than a certain look or appearance. Choosing a desk with optimal and customized height can significantly improve your work experience and comfort when doing computer tasks. However, this does not replace the notion of improving your work habits by taking movement breaks every 1-1.5 hours for 5-10 minutes, and exercising frequently so that you take control over your health at work, and eventually work well and prosper.

For more visual guidance over setting your workstation, you can refer to the video below:

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