Updated 14 September 2015

Does your desk make you sick?

Combining long hours, poor posture and clutter can make you sick.


In any big corporation there'll always be one person with a little sign – or at least the philosophy – that a clean desk is the sign of an unhealthy mind.

New research shows what workers have known for years: combining long hours, poor posture and clutter can make you sick.

If you'd lived before the industrial revolution, your office, if you had one, would’ve been a barn or a loft, where you did your weaving, carpentry, pottery and so on. It was only with the advent of large-scale mechanisation that people worked together in factories. It was only once we had the dubious benefit of mass production that people learned to do one small, repetitive task, day after day.

Thus after a lifetime of work, you could proudly tell your grandchildren that front left headlight of every Leyland Rickety had your meticulously applied soldering in it, a job since delegated to a welding robot that never gets eyestrain and doesn't feel the need to join a union.

New syndrome emerging
But apart from boredom and a hankering to chuck in the job and sell CDs at a fleamarket for a living, there's a new syndrome emerging in office drones. So far it's only been identified at one corporation, NEC-Mitsubishi, but given that the working conditions are similar for millions around the world, it gets you wondering how widespread it is.

It's called Irritable Desk Syndrome and its causes are your basic description of the working day of anyone who uses a desk, computer terminal and telephone each day: poor posture, cluttered desk and long working hours.

Unchecked, the problem leads to chronic pain, loss of productivity and reduced job prospects.

But people have worked at desks for years, so is the problem really that bad? At NEC-Mitsubishi, it would appear so. A survey of its employees revealed that 67% of employees felt "more tied to their desks" than they did two years ago, the BBC website reports.

In the same survey 40% were frustrated about the amount of stuff littering their desks, but lacked the motivation to clean it up; 35% said they knowingly sat with poor posture at their desks, and that the poor posture resulted in neck and back pain. NEC-Mitsubishi, which makes computer monitors, regards the problem as serious enough to team up with another firm, Open Ergonomics, for help. The two companies have produced a "Deskology" guide for office workers.

In a nutshell, the Deskology guide suggests the following:

  • Review the way your desk is set up and look for ways to reduce stress and neck strain.
  • Do some stretching exercises to reduce slouching.
  • Take breaks from your desk to give yourself a change of scenery.
  • Check your posture: monitor the way you sit to reduce the tendency to slouch at your desk.
  • Personalise your desk, which will remind yourself that there’s life outside this square of wood and two squares of plastic (Your monitor and keyboard).
  • Stay hydrated and cool.

There are other ways to reduce strain as well. One of the major sources of stress is the inability to get things done. Few things feel as empowering as being able to get all your stuff done so you can go home. Try these proven ways to boost your productivity:

  • Face your chair away from the door: This will discourage people from dropping by to make small talk when you're trying to work.
  • Close your door: when you really need to finish off a report, because you have to leave for the airport in 40 minutes, put the wood in the hole and unplug the phone.
  • Stare at the horizon: If you spend your days watching your monitor at work and your TV screen at home, you're depriving your eyes and the muscles that control their focus, of the opportunity to focus on infinity. Focus on the furthest thing you can, a few times a day. Doing so probably means you'll need to be in daylight, also a good thing.
  • Chuck things away. Don't habitually stash paperwork. Go through everything on your desk and file it, pass it on or bin it. Start each day with a clean desk and a clean coffee mug.

(William Smook/Health24, updated April 2009)


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