Taking my lead from Steve Caplan’s computer-work related pain, I take a brief look at setting up your computer workstation properly.

When I was a Ph.D. student in England, for a time I suffered chronic pain around the right shoulder blade. After a little reading and some experimentation, I came to believe the cause was a poor set-up for my computer desk.

Having put the computer desk layout right I’ve rarely had this pain again, despite working most of the day on computers–and then some time in the evening too–for years.

There are plenty of websites around describing a good set-up for a computer workstation, like the one below from the Computer Workstation Ergonomics page at the website of the Safety & Health division of The University of Western Australia:

Source: Safety & Health, University of Western Autralia

Source: Safety & Health, University of Western Autralia

If you (or your students, staff, etc.) are going to be working at a desk for any real length of time, I think it’s well worth the effort to set it up properly.

When I look at (biology) students working away at their desks, I have to admit I worry that their computer set-up is less than ideal.[1] Most full-time computer workers (secretaries, programmers, computational biologists, etc.) will–I hope–have been offered appropriate desks, etc., but I still see a lot of ‘make do’ in university departments.

The basics are covered in the graphic and the accompanying article, but I’d like to draw to attention two factors I found particularly relevant for me, one of which isn’t mentioned there.

Firstly, a computer desk should be much lower than a writing desk. For example, one of my computer desk is a recycled writing desk with the short legs removed. Ideally you want a thin desktop, so to lessen height between your thighs and the desktop. (Old-style writing desks often have a thick decorative lip.)

My preference is that your legs barely slip under the desk, so that the keyboard only a little higher than your lap. Bear mind that your feet should be resting on the floor. Thus, the desk top should only be a little higher than your knees.

Secondly, the keyboard should be straight and centred properly. I know this may seem a little strange to be focusing on, but I am fairly confident that this was a key factor in my case. If the keyboard isn’t straight or centred properly, you’ll be sitting askew to the screen, twisted around. Do that all day long for weeks on end and it’s perhaps not surprised you’d wind up feeling sore.

A factor here is that for full-size keyboards–the ones that have numeric keypads on the right, the centre for typing is to the left of the centre of the keyboard unit as a whole. The centre for typing is the middle of the QWERTY key set: it should be the key for the letter ‘Y’.[2]

Give your desk set-up some thought some time. Is it as good as it could be?[3]


[1] But then I worry about every one else, just for something do… I just hate to see others suffer, I guess.

[2] Oh, great. Now this is going to sound like Sesame Street! ’This post is brought to you by the letter… ‘Y’.’

[3] There are lots and lots of other tips for computer workers, but I don’t want this to turn into a list. If this prompts a few readers into thinking about the their work set-ups, or that of their students or staff, that’s good.

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