Petite Office Ergonomics (and: How Does Your Office Handle Ergonomics?)

ergonomics - employer's responsibilityIf you’re petite and your office desk is too tall for you — enough that it’s causing you pain while you work — how much is your employer required to do to make your desk/chair setup more ergonomic? What if you work at a nonprofit? Reader A asks…

I wonder if you could address what my work place is required to do regarding ergonomics? About a year ago I started a new position where I sit at a desk all day. (For the last 5 years I worked remotely meeting clients 90% of the time.) Since then I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting weird pains in my back, wrists, hips, and neck. I’m just about 5’2″ so my desk is too tall for me, my typing and monitor alignment are all wrong. If I raise the chair to the right height, my feet dangle, and resting them on the chair base caused weird hip pain (and a footrest just wasn’t convenient.) I work for a nonprofit, so buying new office supplies isn’t really at the top of our priority list, but can I request one for health purposes? If not, do you have another suggestion? (I live in Ohio if that matters.) Thanks for the help!

Interesting question, Reader A. We haven’t talked about ergonomics in a little while, and I’m curious to hear what readers think about this, both petite and otherwise. What ergonomic hacks have you used for your office? What help have you gotten from your employer in the matter, whether officially (ergonomics consultant, ergonomics budget) or after the fact (e.g., being able to get a $36 footrest reimbursed)?  

First, though, we asked an expert for his take on Reader A’s situation. Paul Krewson, OTR/L, CEAS III — an occupational therapist, ergonomist, and president of Peak Ergonomics — suggested the following:

I recommend that you visit this link and work through the three ergonomic tools for computer workstations.

I would take the results and review them with your supervisor and ask if there is anything they can do to help.

If you need an outside consultant, then you can make a request with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation via the web link above [Readers: find the contact for your state here – Ed.] and that will connect you with a local consultant.

Most computer ergonomic problems can be improved with simple solutions and don’t always need to cost a lot of money. It sounds like you need to find a “convenient” foot rest, because it is essential to your back that your feet rest firmly on the floor. I recommend that you consider using a Fellowes Adjustable Foot Rest.

If your employer is unwilling to help you, then there are two potential legal remedies:

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Using the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), you can ask for a reasonable accommodation for a personal medical problem you are experiencing. You will need to produce a letter from your physician to support your request.

Alternatively, you can file a workers compensation claim if you believe your medical problem is being caused or substantially aggravated by your work activity.

It’s best if you just ask very nicely. Your employer could fight you on both counts which may require you to hire an attorney.

For my own $.02, I think Reader A should definitely a) figure out what she wants in terms of ergonomics, b) figure out what the cost is for everything, and c) figure out where she should start. Your employer will likely see it as a matter of cost more than anything — asking for reimbursement for a $36 footrest or $25 keyboard tray is likely to need a lot less evidentiary support than, say, a treadmill desk or a $600 Aeron chair (they do make a special sized chair if you’re under 5’2″!). If you’re really tight on money, though, you can always just fill a banker’s box with books and then put it under your chair to use as a footrest, to at least see if that feels a bit better.

Readers, what are your thoughts on petite-friendly office ergonomics? How has your office handled ergonomics, and what have become your must-have ergonomic tweaks? 

(Pictured: Fellowes Office Suites Adjustable Foot Rest, available at Amazon for $36.)

Further reading:

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Comments

  1. Anonymous :

    Yup, price it out and ask. Most workplaces will accommodate you to avoid a worker’s comp claim. At the most, I could see them *maybe* asking for a doctor’s note, but probably not. Everyone I know at work has been accommodated when it has come to footrests, keyboard trays, etc…If they say no, I would just buy a footrest myself to avoid being in pain. This is actually a major issue with working from home because workers can (and occasionally do) file workers comp claims for carpel tunnel when working from home since their office didn’t set up/inspect their desk for ergonomics.

  2. I handle the preliminary ADA requests for my office, and I’ve never turned a reasonable request down. I’ve granted every single request for keyboard trays and footrests, and with doctors notes I’ve purchased at least seven sit-stand desks. Our organization has decided they all fall under the realm of reasonable accommodation.

  3. Coach Laura :

    I am 5’2″, sitting here typing now with my feet on a footrest. There really isn’t an alternative and while it isn’t convenient, I use a footrest when I’m going to be reading, typing or using the computer for any length of time.

    I have an adjustable footrest (meaning the angle can be changed just by pushing down with either my toes or my heels at will). If I needed it, I’d pay for a footrest myself and then be able to use it at another job later.

    I’ve also had a combo heater/fan/footrest which was awesome in my 65 degree office and also had adjustable angle/height. Follow Kat’s link for the foot rest above – it’s the Fellows Climate Control Footrest 8030901 at amazon for $45. (May also be available at Office supply stores.) The heater is good because building management won’t object to it – even in a building that banned heaters it was an “approved” heater, probably because of the low wattage. The fan is nice if your office gets stuffy.

    I’ve also used the “box of books under the desk” and that works to a point but may be hard on your shoes.

    I’ve put textbooks under computer monitors that weren’t adjustable to make them the right height. They also make shelves for this but again more dollars.

  4. Get a footrest. I have used everything from the very cheap (empty box of printer paper) to the more expensive, adjustable kind. I would think that this would solve your problems. Also, try standing up part of the day. I use an empty box to make my laptop higher and stand for several hours. This is better for you than sitting all day.

  5. Dear Kat,

    I feel for the petites…I really do. But there are tall people on this s*te, and you ALWAYS ignore us. We have ergo and issues too. Desk too short. Chairs that don’t fit us in the seat length. Pants that are too short (you almost never post pants in Long/Tall). The world is unfair.

    Also, all the shorts take all the tall mans from us, leaving us to date short mans and wear flats. RIGHT ELLEN?

    • Anonymous :

      +1. Except I adore my short mans and wouldn’t trade him for any tall mans on the planet!

      • Anonymous Associate :

        Yeah, agree with there needing to be more stuff about tall issues. Pants are impossible. Desks are terrible (see below).

        But I also love my short(er) mans. He is 5’9″, so I don’t think that qualifies as short….

    • Preach. My chair is too short, if I wear heels I can’t fit my legs under my desk, I had to put multiple books under my computer monitors, and I don’t own a pair of work pants because apparently tall people are not allowed to be above a size 12 in pants.

    • Anonymous :

      That’s totally fair, but office furniture is typically designed with a 6 foot tall man in mind, so I’m guessing that petite women have unique problems when it comes to standard office equipment not fitting their needs. It sounds like that’s what this post is getting at.

      • Anonymous :

        Judging from the responses below, I stand corrected! I just work in an office that is mostly women and the furniture is designed for men. Lots of us are in physical therapy as a result!

    • Yes! Please feature more tall clothing options! I find pants are possible to find (not super easy, since obviously finding pants that fit well is difficult for every woman). What I find really frustrating is finding long sleeve tops and sweaters where the sleeves are long enough! A few companies do make tall shirts and sweaters, but even those that do so are rather limited in what they offer in tall sizes, especially if you want clothing that’s not white, black, or navy basics.

    • As a short, I sincerely apologize for taking a tall mans from you and making you wear flats.

  6. Agreed on the talls! I’m tall and have suffered a bad set up for years. I’ve accepted a new job and want a sit/stand option at the new office – I’d love advice on when the right time is to make a request.

  7. Anonymous Associate :

    I had to get a different desk installed because i am incredibly tall and have disproportionately long legs for my height to boot. Even with my chair at its lowest, i couldn’t fit my legs under the desk without extending them straight out in front of me, and then the wall got in the way!

    I asked, and they did it for me. But I am at a big law firm.

    • Anonymous :

      +1 – not super tall, but long legs/arms and short torso, makes the keyboard placement…interesting. Ideally it would be under the desk to keep proper alignment for the elbow/wrist. But then the keyboard tray runs into my knees. Therefore the ideal set up is for me to place a board on my lap and put the keyboard on the board. (Not what I actually do).

  8. I could have written with exactly this problem. I work at a university, and there is zero money allocated for providing ergonomic furniture and apparently nobody else in my (mostly male) department has need for any sort of accommodation. Luckily, after a lot of begging, I was able to use some money designated for starting my lab to buy a few things. I have the small sized Aeron chair which is a dramatic improvement over all “normal” sized chairs I’ve tried (the proper hip to knee length and elbow to elbow width makes a big difference). Now that I’ve tried it, I think I would even be willing to pay for it on my own. I also have a foot rest, though I often find myself not using it. You can try just using a box to get a sense of what size would be right before you actually buy one. My monitor is piled up on books to get it to the right height. I also have a small desk I bought at Ikea for standing at sometimes (with the computer on another large pile of books to get the right height, plus a separate keyboard). I had to buy this on my own because the university can only buy furniture from its preferred vendor, which is all $$$$$. It’s still far from ideal (i.e. I’m still in constant pain), but it’s better than it was. It’s really ridiculous that I’m stuck doing this all on my own- the joys of working for a public university in a state that has decided that education doesn’t matter!

  9. I made a foot rest using an old wine crate flipped over. Looks like this: www.thediyvillage.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Wine_Crates_Raw.jpg

    I also somehow conned my firm into getting me a VariDesk (www.varidesk.com), so I stand for a portion of the day. That’s been helping a lot. I did have an Ikea hack situation going on for a while like this www.enerspacecoworking.com/make-your-own-standing-desk-for-22/ I’m a huge fan of that set up, but I don’t think my firm liked the way it looked…

  10. My company got rid of our offices and moved us to open floor plan with hot desking so that every day you had to find an open desk, then clear it off at the end of the day and put everything away on your allotted two small shelves. Employee Health agreed that the desks and chairs were too big for me and likely caused my chronic back pain I’ve had since we switched, but they refused to get me a chair that fit. All they could offer was a heavy foot rest that I have to crawl under the desk (in a skirt usually) to pick up and move every single day, which also did my back no good. I tried to put up with the distracting noise and other major inefficiencies of open floor plan for 3 years, but my body cannot take 10-12 hours a day of arbitrary torture anymore.

    This is my last week at this crappy company, and after a vacation, I start a new job with my own office again! My chiropractor will miss me :)

  11. Check with your office… I work for a university and we have an ergonomics department that will come out and do assessments.

  12. I’m 5’2″ as well. Depending on your office setup, I would recommend getting a foot rest from Ikea (I got one for like 15$ on sale) that allows you to keep your legs extended in front of you all day. I then adjusted my chair to the right height so that my arms are properly aligned with the key board. I just hide the foot rest in a corner where clients can’t see it if I knew they were coming in. And pretty much all of my coworkers commented on how comfortable I looked, but no one ever told me to get rid of it. I work in an office in Western Canada (north of Montana) as a project manager for an engineering company FWIW.

  13. Reach out to HR/benefits and see if there is a ergonomics consultation tied to your short term or long term disability benefit. Similar to the worker’s comp advice, a lot of disability carriers will buy you a new chair or a footrest to avoid a claim. Most of the time you don’t need a doctor’s note or to go as far as filing a claim.

  14. I’m 5’1:

    I always get a keyboard tray installed on the desk. Relatively inexpensive and it will help a lot.

    I also have a special “petite” sized chair. The seat is not as deep as a regular desk chair so my back rests against the back of the chair when my feet are on the ground

    With the tray and the smaller chair, I’m good.

  15. I’m 5’0. Whenever I move to a new desk, I immediately let my supervisor know I need my desk assessed. They immediately lower my cubicle desk to the lowest possible height. The company had to purchase an extra small office chair for me that I have taken with me with each internal office move. The chair and table height make a huge difference. I also have a keyboard tray installed. I actually found the keyboard tray and a foot rest in offices/cubes that were not occupied (once an employee leaves the company their office equipment becomes first come, first served). Start checking empty offices for anything useful!

    In prior companies where I worked at various client sites, I’ve used a rolled up towel and stuffed it into the seat back as lumbar support. I also purchased a lumbar/back support for prior office chairs.

  16. Yeah, my workplace is awesome. We can get a free ergonomic evaluation whenever (I mean, I don’t think they’d like it if you did it every month, but if you requested one once a year that’d be fine). We’re required to take an e-learning on ergonomics as well (at hire and then… every 1-3 yrs? something like that). Basically whatever ergonomic equipment we want we can get, although I’m sure there is some limit on total cost of fancy chairs and whatnot. I think most people just get their chair adjusted, but you can also get footrests, shelves to put your monitor on, et c. (And basically every desk starts off with a keyboard tray, although you can have it removed easily if you don’t like it). I know at least one person got a standing desk (perhaps a standing/sitting convertible desk? I’m not totally clear on what he has, but it’s certainly out of the ordinary).

  17. I just bought my own sit/stand desk. My workplace likely would have helped cover at least some of the cost if I had asked, but I didn’t want to go through the bureaucratic hassle and wait for them to get around to processing the request, and I didn’t have any special reason to need one. I’m 5’6″, so it’s not like a regular desk doesn’t fit me. I just didn’t want to sit down all day because I don’t like to. The Ikea sit/stand desk isn’t THAT expensive (http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/S59022528/#/S79022532) when you consider that you spend most of your time at your office, and that’s a lot of time to be uncomfortable. So I say, if your employer for some reason doesn’t accommodate your request, buy whatever you need anyway and take it with you when you eventually change jobs.

  18. For those people for whom a footrest does work, the best footrest I ever found was a step-aerobics board (free, from a work friend who got bored of it as an exercise device). Long, so it’s beneath my feet no matter where at my desk I am. Adjustable height, in chunky increments. Sturdy and non-slip. Available on Amazon.

  19. These petite office chairs offer good ergonomic support, plenty of adjustability, and correct proportions. It isn’t healthy to sit in a chair designed for someone else’s body, and it isn’t necessary either.

  20. My biggest challenge is not my work space, but every other chair I have to sit in for meetings, especially outside the office. I also struggle on planes, buses and pretty much everywhere else because the seats have too much depth for my knees to fall correctly without slouching my back or I can’t put my feet on the ground.

    Is there something portable I can take with me that is less cumbersome than a foot rest? Any kind of back cushion? Is that an option? I am really eager for a solution because it really is starting to cause back, ankle, and knee pain.

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