Updated 24 February 2014

Screensaver or eyesaver?

You know the feeling: you spend your day staring at a computer monitor and by mid-afternoon your eyes feel gritty and sore. But there’s hope.


You know the feeling: you spend your day staring at a computer monitor and by mid-afternoon your eyes feel gritty and sore. You go to splash your face and notice the whites of your eyes have been renamed the reds. But there’s hope.

The role of computers in working life means many of us spend our days staring at a screen that flickers rapidly. Often the monitor has competition from fluorescent lighting, which flickers as well.

Also, our eyes stay fixed almost constantly on one focal plane for hours, something very few people have done throughout history. Even monks toiling over illuminated texts, and artisans making Faberge eggs or watches had to glance away from their work.

And it’s not just the hapless drones in cubicle-land who suffer either; the magazine Entrepreneur reports that ergonomics experts believe that up to 95% of home offices have insufficient lighting.

Eye strain equals diminished productivity, but obviously you need to see the stuff that’s on the screen, so what can you do? Here’s a list of suggestions on ways to alter your workspace, as well as some exercises you can do.

  • Watch for reflections. If there’s glare on your screen, move the screen and if necessary move your desk. You might find you need to close some blinds or curtains to block off the source of the glare. Ideally you should sit with a wall behind you, with no reflective surfaces like pictures mounted behind glass.
  • Have a bit on the side.Some ergonomics buffs say the optimum lighting set-up is a windowless room with concealed lighting and all-white surfaces. It sounds like the set for a Duran Duran music video and it’ll be all but impossible for a lot of people to achieve in their workplace. A compromise is to have a source of light – preferably natural light off to one side. A source of light from directly behind your monitor will strain your eyes because they’ll constantly have to focus on the varying intensities of the two light sources in your field of vision.
  • The art of concealment. A good compromise may be to have concealed lighting that offers shadowless lighting. Light sources directly over your PC are fine, as long as they don’t cast shadows. A row of small lights will work well. It’s worth spending a bit of money on it.
  • A flicker of daylight. If you’ve ever taken a photo under fluorescent lighting you’ll know it produces a slightly bilious green tinge. Still, strip lighting is cheap, emits virtually no heat and is quiet. If you opt to continue using strip lighting, get daylight-balanced tubes. They’re more expensive, but you ought to notice a reduction in eye strain and hopefully an improvement in productivity.
  • Make a hot spot. Apart from strip lighting, it makes good sense to have a desk lamp for reading papers. This reduces the discrepancy in lighting levels between reading on screen and reading paper.
  • Take a break. Give your eyes a break from your monitor every half-hour. This can be in the form of staring out of the window for a while, printing out material to read and reading it in daylight at a window.

Exercises for relieving eye strain
Next, here are two exercises for relieving eye strain.

The first is called palming and is quick and easy enough to do at your desk. Rub your hands together briskly until they feel warm. Without touching the eyelids or eyeballs, put the palms of your hands over each eye. You’ll feel the warmth of your hands over your eyes. Breathe deeply and relax.

The second exercise is a yoga one called the Netra Viyaamam – try saying that after a double carrot juice. You’ll need to remove your contact lenses first, so this is the kind of exercise to do when you have some time on your hands:

  • Sit with your head, neck and spine in alignment – erect but relaxed, in other words. Breathe deeply and easily;
  • Exhale through your nostrils and contract your abdomen. Keep your face relaxed;
  • Keeping your head straight and your eyes open, follow an imaginary perpendicular line with your eyes. Move your gaze up and down smoothly, without straining your eyes;
  • Close your eyes and let them relax;
  • Now, just as with the perpendicular eye movements, move your eyes horizontally. Keep your head erect and your gaze ahead of you.
  • Close and relax your eyes;
  • Keeping your head erect, lift your eyes upward, then sweep your gaze around, following an imaginary circle at the periphery of your visions. Keep the movement smooth, without straining your eyes. Make the circle several times and finish with your eyes looking upward again;
  • Repeat the move, but in the opposite direction.
  • Close your eyes until they feel relaxed.

(William Smook, Health24, updated April 2011)

Useful resources:

South African Optometric Association
Tel: 011 805 4517
South African National Council for the Blind
Tel: 012 452 3811
Retina South Africa
Tel: 011 622 4904
Ophthalmological Society of South Africa


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