Illustration by Veronica Chen of individuals of different heights

For Some Workers, Office Chairs Pit Pain Against Productivity

Standard office furniture creates painful problems for many office workers outside of the average height range. Who is responsible for solving them?
September 18, 2020
9 mins read

Before sitting down to a long day of toiling in front of my computer, I like to eliminate all distractions. I create a space where I won’t be disturbed, turning off my phone and putting other thoughts out of my mind so that nothing competes for my attention. At least at first. After about an hour, continued focus becomes difficult when I am confronted with the muscle tension and pain that accompanies sitting in the same position for a large portion of the day.

This problem is by no means unique. Most office workers are familiar with the suffocating feeling of clenched muscles. But with some preventative measures, many of them can keep the resultant pain at a manageable level. For those workers who fall outside of the average height, however, relief may unfortunately be just above (or below) their reach.

When most office workers adjust their posture or their desk height, they are working with furniture that is built to make this process easier. But most furniture is not made for people that are shorter or taller than average. While workers who are comfortably within the bell curve can adjust their furniture and posture, workers on the outskirts try to achieve good posture and at the same time struggle against furniture designed to keep them from it. Critically, they additionally must deal with the pain that signals the ultimate futility of their efforts.

Office work for those of us who are inconveniently sized is overwhelmingly frustrating. The potential for pain threatens to undermine our focus at every turn. While many offices see that this is a problem for their workers, they also see that there are few cheap solutions. The cheap, standard office chairs they buy suit the majority of their workers just fine. Why should they have to go the expensive extra mile just to cater to a few others? But at the same time, should the workers have to put in enormous extra effort to fight a battle that they did not choose and will likely lose?

The Pain Problem

Standard office chairs fail to support shorter individuals in several ways:

— Seats can often be too high above the ground. When this happens, workers’ legs will dangle, leading to circulatory problems.

— The armrests are usually set too far apart and therefore don’t provide the critical arm support needed to prevent problems in the hands, neck, arms and thoracic region.

— Headrests are often too high, limiting neck support and in some cases worsening the situation by driving the head forward.

— Lumbar support is typically suboptimal. Because the seat of the chair is too deep for them, shorter people are unable to reach the backrest, and therefore rely solely on their fatigued back muscles to support their torsos.

Unfortunately, the situation is no easier for those of above-average height.

— Since the seats are often not deep enough, large portions of their legs remain unsupported as they hang off the seat, causing pressure on the underside of the thighs.

— Because of the size of their chairs, taller people have to contort their bodies into other unnatural positions that can also cause pain in the back, shoulders and neck. For example, since their chairs are often too low, this can force people’s hips to rest uncomfortably below their knees.

As a shorter person, I have been frustrated by this problem for most of my life. Even though I’ve learned to grimly accept the pain I’ve so consistently experienced as part of my body, it can get overwhelming enough that it demands my full attention. I’m often forced to stop my work to try and massage out some of the damage the last few hours have inflicted on my body. Even as I do this, however, I know that I’m not really fixing anything — at best, I’m quieting the pain just long enough to mete out some more.

What Workers Can Do

Since they can’t get the chairs they need, many workers must resort to some “outside the bell curve” thinking to wring out some comfort from the chairs they have. Online, creative tips and tricks to help them do this abound.

In a Huffington Post article, Hilary Bryan, owner of The Body at Work Ergonomics, offers many hacks for shorter workers:

— Bryan encourages readers to sit perched at the front of their chairs in order to avoid the pain that comes with a passive lower body. Since the distant backrests won’t help them do this, she recommends “getting a role of tacky grip liner and putting it on the front edge of your chair so your clothes will latch onto it.”

— Rather than straining their backs to reach the backs of their chairs, Bryan’s customers are advised to “place a rolled-up bath towel or a squishy exercise ball between your back and the backrest.”

— Since many petite workers resort to tucking their feet under their chairs to keep their lower bodies upright, Bryan advises them to “try adding some grip mat around the base of the chair, so that your feet have something tacky to press into.”

Taller workers have some choice tools in their belts as well:

— In order to raise their chairs to more appropriate heights, they can buy chair casters or cylinders to attach to the bottoms of their chairs.

— Sitting on a pillow can help increase support for the back and legs.

— If all else fails, there are plenty of resources advising tall people about the best way to rebuild office chairs to better suit their needs.

While these solutions are indeed creative, even just going through the list begins to feel exhausting and absurd. Why should workers have to put in all this extra effort just to get their work done? Why can’t their offices just accommodate them?

What Offices Can Do

Seeing that this is a problem for their employees, many offices have stepped up and tried to help. For example, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, the city of Phoenix keeps 10 different chair sizes for their employees to test before selecting one.

But most offices also contend with the fact that solutions are often expensive. Buying standard-sized chairs in bulk is a much smarter decision economically than investing in more custom chairs. Buying more expensive chairs for some workers may also be construed as preferential treatment. If an office buys a better chair for one worker, they might have to commit to buying better chairs for all workers.

And the adjustments offices would have to make might not stop there; investing in differently sized chairs could mean investing in other furniture as well. If chairs are now too small or large for the desks, desks will have to be raised, lowered or even replaced. A custom made office, while undoubtedly more comfortable, may just not be financially feasible.

What Should We Do?

Although it’s certainly tempting amid daily frustration to demand that better chairs be made available to me, doing so would be a bit hypocritical. For the past few months, like many others during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve been doing all my work from my home, where one might reasonably expect to find furniture more suited to my needs. Yet somehow, I have still been sitting in a chair that’s too big for me. Just like every classroom, office and library I worked in during healthier times, I furnished my apartment with cheaper furniture made for people of average height. If it’s this hard for me to dish out some extra cash for a better chair, how can I expect offices to do the same?

Ultimately, how much responsibility any one office has to ensure the comfort of all its employees is going to depend on the resources each office has at its disposal. And in the meantime, where resources are scarce and backrests are inaccessible, I’ll be here with my pillow to fill in the gaps.

Alicia Furlan, University of Pittsburgh

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Alicia Furlan

University of Pittsburgh
Philosophy, Communication Rhetoric

Alicia is a Philosophy student at the University of Pittsburgh. When she’s not studying, she loves to go on long walks and explore the city, especially on the occasional days when it isn’t raining!

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