Ergonomics for engineers

Why proper posture is important

My biggest regret as a software engineer was when I was 22 and I found myself incapacitated. After work, I tried to walk a few hundred meters to my house but every step I took sent excruciating pain up my legs and radiated from the base of my spine. It took me over 45 minutes to get home and I was in agony. What lead to this painful experience? To put it simply, poor posture. I want to let this be a warning to myself and others the dangers of ignoring posture and ergonomics. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget and its effects still impact me even now, 4 years later.

How I dug myself into a hole

I was a web developer part-time throughout university and during the holidays in between semesters I’d work full time: 7:00 am to 5:00 pm weekdays. I would sit down at a desk all day. If that wasn’t bad enough, I’d get home, do some exercise and then sit down again for the evening or lay down in bed and use my laptop. Ergonomics wasn’t something that entered my mind, even when I felt a slight pain in my hands or back I’d just ignore it. It didn’t last long enough to be a concern.

What really exacerbated my back pain was a gap-year I took to just work full-time. This is when I really started to notice back pain. It wasn’t too painful but I decided to visit a physiotherapist just to be safe. After a single session which I hoped would make me better, it actually made it much worse. I was in agony for the next week until it finally got to the point where I could walk properly again. It was time to seek help.

How I kept calm and carried on

After months of GP visits, physio exercises, chiropractic support, full back massage and copious amounts of pain killers that I was properly diagnosed with multiple slipped discs. I’m grateful to the physio who recommended me to a specialist where I finally had an MRI. At last, I knew what it was and how to approach getting better. Over the next year, I worked on daily stretches and exercises to help relieve the pain and strengthen my back. Some days, the pain was so immense, it was a struggle even to get out of bed.

4 years on, I’m not pain-free but I know when it flares up and how to correct it. I can manage it. I have adapted my environment so I can avoid pain. I now know ways to avoid further flare-ups and exercises to strengthen the areas of my body to reduce strain on my lower back. I’m happy I am at a point where the pain is manageable but I’m still frustrated with myself for not doing something sooner. So, to my past self and to any young programmers, what piece of advice would I give?

Advice for young software engineers

Here is some advice I wish I had when I was younger. It would have saved hundreds of dollars of medical expenses, avoided living with pain and helped me more than I could have ever imagined. It may seem like common sense but it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. When you’re so immersed in what you’re doing, it’s not easy to disengage and look inward. It’s easy to make excuses or simply ignore it and hope for the best.

Take lots of breaks

The most important piece of advice is to take breaks. You read it everywhere. If you work in an office, you’re likely sitting at a desk for long hours. Get up and move. It’s great for your body in so many ways. Standing up and stretching is exactly what I was not doing, I would sit for hours working through problems because I thought that’s what productivity looks like. It’s a lie. You’re more productive when you’re physically and mentally fit. Take breaks every 45 minutes. I have an Apple Watch which constantly reminds me to stand up and move around for when I’m most stubborn. It’s the simplest habit you can form that will help you avoid the excruciating consequences I faced.

Make use of a standing desk

My next job was for a small software consultancy and there were a few perks I really appreciated. The hours were shorter, a more comfortable 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and the desks were adjustable. I made it a habit to alternate between standing and sitting twice a day. This adjustment is great because it redistributes the strain on your back. I also tense my abs while standing to help strengthen my core to support my back. The key is to ensure you’re never in the same position for extended periods of time. If you' don’t have the luxury of a standing desk, try and make the most of your chair.

A chair is your best asset

When looking at the prices of chairs, it’s easy to skimp and go for something cheap. After all, it’s only a chair. Wrong. A good chair is the most important piece of office equipment you can own. I never realised how important until it was until I had a slipped disc. You spend hours in your office chair at work, it had better be comfortable, adjustable and supporting. I will never cheap-out on an office chair again and I suggest you don’t either. It doesn’t have to be brand new, but it does have to be good. A chair is an investment in your long-term health, it’s worth every cent and your body will thank you.

Listen to your body

The whole reason I got into this situation is that I didn’t pay attention to what my body was telling me. I ignored the pains in my back as temporary annoyances. I put the pain in my legs down to not enough walking sleeping in an odd position. When I finally listened to what my body was screaming at me to fix, it was too little too late. When you take breaks, take note of how you feel. Are your hands or feet sore, is there any discomfort, are your muscles tight? Simply check-in with your body and do something about it. Do some stretches, check and adjust your posture, walk around for a bit. These little things make a difference. Do them.

I hope these tips help you avoid the same mistakes I did. Although my back is much better than it was in the first 6 months, I still have to work hard to make sure it never regresses backwards to that point. It’s not just your back you should watch out for, there are things we do every day that impact our bodies. It’s vital to make sure you don’t develop RSI, save your eyes from strain and keep your body flexible. Do a bit each day and don’t ignore your body for the sake of productivity.