A Comprehensive Guide to Ergonomic Chairs: Features, Importance and What to Look For

A Comprehensive Guide to Ergonomic Chairs: Features, Importance and What to Look For

The humble office chair might seem like just another piece of office furniture for everyday use, but consider how much time you spend sitting on them. When you begin to look at how they can affect our wellbeing at work, you begin to see their importance.

For managers and workers in HR, ergonomics is a vital part of keeping employees fit, healthy and productive. From what to look for to common features, our guide provides you everything you need to know about ergonomic office chairs.

What are Ergonomics in Office Chairs?

The term “ergonomics” is defined as:

“The science or study of people’s efficiency in their working environment.”

Those who study ergonomics or create products in this field aren’t just concerned with office chairs. The umbrella of ergonomics touches on many different aspects of office life. It brings together scientific fields like physiology, psychology and engineering to create designs that suit the working styles of modern-day employees. With remote working becoming more popular, research is also building in how we can apply ergonomics to the home.

Research into office life has highlighted how damaging it can be to our long-term health. Ergonomic designs set out to minimise any complications and keep employees happy, comfortable and productive throughout the day.

Aside from office chairs, ergonomic designs are also applied to:

  • Desks
  • Monitors
  • Keyboards
  • Mouse
  • Environmental factors such as lighting and temperature

Features of an Ergonomic Office Chair

What are the features and specific adjustments made to office chairs that make them ergonomic?

Seat width and depth adjustment 

An ergonomic chair should have the correct depth and width of the seat to ensure you remain comfortable for long stretches. Sat down in the chair, there should be a gap of roughly a couple of inches between the seat and the back of your knees. This allows for a more natural sitting position and provides support for your thighs and spine.

Arm and height adjustment 

As human beings, we come in all shapes and sizes. Sat in an ergonomic chair, our feet should be flat on the floor and our arms in a natural position with the armrests able to slide under our desk. All height adjustments are done in relation to the height of the desk and monitor at your workstation.

All ergonomic chairs come with arm and height adjusters, enabling us to find the correct position to improve posture and reduce neck pain.

Lumbar Support  

All good office chairs will come with lumbar support. This lower-back support is essential to maintaining the natural S-shape of your spine.

Lumbar support is one of the most important aspects of good ergonomic chair design. Back problems make up a significant portion of workplace complications. Supporting the lower back and spine can reduce the number of employees with complaints in these areas.

The very best office chairs come with adjustable lumbar support to offer greater protection to its users.

Five-star wheelbase

Manoeuvrability is a vital component of a good office chair. Rigidly sitting in the same position is unnatural and causes strain on the body. That’s why it’s essential that ergonomic office chairs come with a five-star swivel wheelbase.

Swivel wheelbases allow the user to freely move around while remaining seated, moving their arms and legs. It also makes reaching items on your desk easier. Without it, you could be forced to twist your back or over-stretch, putting unnecessary strain on your body.

Comfortable Fabric 

Finally, consider the fabric that the chair is made from. Does it contain breathable, mesh materials that leave us comfortable throughout the day? Without it, the chair will become hot and stuffy, making for an uncomfortable experience in warm conditions.

Seats and armrests should also ideally be cushioned for extra support. The user should be able to sit in the chair and be unable to feel the base through the cushion.

What to Look for Sitting in an Ergonomic Office Chair

When trying out an ergonomic chair, how do you know what to look for? When you sit in it, how do you know it’s right for you or your employees?

Bring in a range of office chairs and have some of your employees test them out, using these pointers to make a decision on which is best for them:

  • When sat down, your feet should comfortably rest in a flat position on the floor.
  • If they don’t, the adjustable height lever should lower the user so they can do this.
  • If the user is still unable to position their feet flat on the floor, a footrest may have to be used. However, the first priority should always be for the chair to allow the user to do this naturally.
  • The chair’s backrest should support the lower curve of the back, helping maintain a natural S-shape.
  • Ideally, the backrest will be adjustable in order to fit an individual’s back, accounting for different heights and body shapes.
  • Armrests should be adjustable and close to the user’s body. When used, it should allow the shoulders to relax.
  • Armrests should adjust to below the height of the user’s desk. This way, they can position their legs underneath the desk and reduce any overstretching of the back, shoulders and arms.
  • The seat and arms should contain enough cushioning to ensure that the user is unable to feel the base beneath it.
  • The seat of the chair and the back of the user’s knees should be around two inches apart.
  • The back of the chair should be high enough to at least meet the middle of the shoulder blades. Ideally, the chair would go even higher, bringing a greater level of support.
  • The wheelbase should allow for flexibility and freedom for the user, who can twist and push the chair around freely.
  • Once sat down, the user should see the centre of the computer screen in front of them. This reduces any eye and neck strain.

Importance of Ergonomic Office Chairs

It can be a challenge to convince company executives that ergonomics is a subject they should take seriously. Without a direct line between investment and a financial return, it can be easy to neglect the ergonomics of your workplace.

But the problem is clear. According to 2016 data from the Office of National Statistics, musculoskeletal problems such as back and neck pain are the second most significant cause of sick days in the UK. 22.4% of all sick days are accounted to these complications.

Long-term health is a serious concern too. A link between higher long-term mortality rates and long periods of sitting each day has now been established by studies such as this one published in the Exercise Sport Science Review Journal.

There is ample science to support the idea of how good ergonomics can lead to happier, healthier and more productive staff, helping reduce the number of sick days taken.

A study from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries upgraded 4,000 workers to ergonomic furniture. 75% of absenteeism was reduced after the use of ergonomic furniture began, and there was a 40% increase in time employees were on task.

A 2012 review of five ergonomic chair studies in the BMC Musculoskeletal Disorder Journal supports Washington State’s findings. Introducing ergonomically designed chairs will reduce the level of musculoskeletal symptoms among the workforce. Investment in ergonomics today can lead to greater productivity and fewer absences.

Given the number of hours your employees spend in the office each week, it is the responsibility of the company to help keep staff healthy while they work.

Alternative Ergonomic Office Chairs

Some attempts have been made to create alternative and unusual designs that move away from the traditional look and feel of an office chair. These are offered as solutions to those with bad backs or issues with their posture. There are three significant types: kneeling, exercise balls, and saddle chairs.

Kneeling Chairs

On first view, kneeling chairs look very different from the ordinary office chair. There is no backrest and the weight is shifted onto the knees and shins of the user.

The intent behind kneeling chairs is to reduce the strain on your spine and your back. It can also help to improve the development of your core muscles and encourages better posture by aligning your spine, back, neck and shoulders.

Kneeling chairs do offer an interesting solution to those with back trouble, but there are caveats. With no leg movement and no ability to swivel, they are impractical to use for long periods. Plus, over time the pressure on your knees and shins means pain might simply be shifted to another area rather than alleviated altogether.

Like many of these alternatives to ergonomic office chairs, they are best used in short bursts.

Read more about the difference between office chairs and kneeling chairs here.

Exercise Balls

You’ve probably seen exercise balls in environments other than the office. Also known as gym balls, they’re commonly used as an exercise aid. Recently, they’ve made their way into the office space. Users can benefit from core muscle development when using an exercise ball as their office chair. However, the drawbacks outweigh the potential benefits.

Given its unusual shape and the intentions it is designed for, the exercise ball is not a long-term ergonomic seating solution. There are no arm or back supports, and there is no adjustability to the height. All this adds to the strain that ergonomic chairs intend to reduce. Over time, the constant balancing will lead to fatigue.

Exercise balls don’t meet the UK health and safety standards for ergonomic workplace seating (many of which are discussed in the “Features of an Ergonomic Office Chair” above). For these reasons, it’s hard to recommend an exercise ball for any employee.

Read more about the difference between office chairs and exercise balls here .

Saddle Chairs

Similar in appearance to an equestrian-based saddle or just an office stool, the saddle chair intends to improve the posture of those sitting on them. The theory goes that using a saddle chair keeps your spine and back in a forward-leaning position, which is more natural and reduces strain.

Of the three alternatives to office chairs, saddle chairs can provide the most benefit. You might find it helps to improve your posture, and other ergonomic features like a five-star wheelbase make them easier to use for longer periods.

However, it should be used as a replacement for an ergonomic office chair. With no back or arm support, over time you’ll feel strain in these areas. If you plan to use one, only do so for short periods.

Ergonomic chairs are an indispensable addition to any workplace. Given what we now know about the long-term health problems caused by stationary and sedentary lifestyles, every workplace in the UK needs to assess the needs of their staff and invest accordingly. Use this guide and you’ll soon find your staff are healthy, happier and more productive every day.