Developing software is an indoor job with no heavy lifting. How dangerous can it be? Actually, the long term dangers to your health are all too real. Humans have bodies evolved for running around the African savanna, not sitting motionless in front of a computer for hours at a time. I have heard several stories of developer careers cut short by RSI. Imagine if you couldn’t type any more, because it was too painful? Yes, it could happen to you. I started to write an article about ergonomics for developers. Then I realised I knew someone who was a lot more knowledgeable about it than me. Derek kindly agreed to write it instead.
It may seem hard to believe that working at your desk can cause you long term harm, but unfortunately the real toll of sitting in the same location and doing the same operations over and over again may not be felt until it is too late. Here are some simple precautions you can take.
1. Setup your work environment to be ergonomic
Make sure that your whole working environment is set up correctly. This includes your monitor, keyboard, mouse, your desk height, your chair, and possibly a foot rest. Adjusting your seating position relative to your workstation layout encourages good posture. Do this on a regular basis, not just when the ergonomic assessment forms come around once a year. Setting up your chair correctly is probably the most important step and is covered in detail at healthycomputing.com.
2. Try using an ergonomic mouse and keyboard
There are a wide range of ergonomic mice available nowadays, and while some of them may look a little strange, you may be surprised how comfortable they are compared to conventional mice. The Evoluent VerticalMouse is ergonomic, easy to use and available in left and right hand variants. If you find an ergonomic keyboard inconvenient for programming, consider looking into one with a small key travel distance, like the keyboards on laptops where the keys only need to be depressed a small amount, as this reduces the finger movements and effort required.
3. Remember to look up from your monitor
Staring at your computer screen for long periods will lead to eye strain, tiredness, headaches and dry eyes. Every few minutes, look up from your monitor and focus on objects in the distance, either by looking out of the window or at the most distant end of the room. You can do this by using ScreenRest set to remind you at fixed time intervals. It is also worth adjusting your monitor screen to eliminate reflections from light sources behind and above you.
4. Sit up and stop slouching
Leaning forward, sinking down in your chair or resting you elbows on the desk places unnecessary pressure on your back. Poor posture, maintained over a period of time, leads to back pain and more serious back conditions. Make sure that you regularly correct your posture, sitting slightly reclined and supported in your chair with your shoulders relaxed.
5. Keep yourself hydrated
Don’t forget to keep up your fluid levels throughout the day. Even mild dehydration can leave you feeling lightheaded or bring on a headache. Often when you feel hungry it is actually that you’re thirsty, so don’t reach for the biscuits, get a glass of water first. Staying hydrated will help keep you clearheaded, more alert and help counter the dry environment around computers.
6. Take regular rest breaks
Get up and walk around regularly, taking a few minutes to relax. Try to avoid the temptation of carrying on with that feature that is “nearly finished”, or doggedly tracking down that bug that you’ve “almost fixed”. Taking a break will refresh you both physically and mentally. Also, use the break as a reminder to change the type of task you’re performing. If you use the keyboard and mouse extensively, you may want to use ScreenRest set to remind you based on the amount of usage. It can be surprising how much you use a computer continuously without realizing.
7. Look after yourself before it is too late
As a programmer your livelihood depends on you being able to use a computer. Pay attention to any discomfort, tension or pain you may feel while using the computer. Don’t think that computer-related conditions won’t happen to you and ignore those nagging pains until they become something more serious.
Do not underestimate how severe and uncomfortable repetitive strain injury pains can become and how long they will persist throughout the day and even into the night and will eventually impact leisure activities you enjoy doing. Once the damage has been done even the simplest of movements, not just using the computer, can be enough to trigger pain. There are tools available, such as speech recognition software, to help with basic computer tasks such as emails and browsing basic websites, but it is of no use when controlling complex development IDEs. Speech recognition can frustrating to control at the best of times and is impractical in an open plan office environment, due to the background noise.
Derek Pollard is the developer of ergonomics software ScreenRest, for the prevention and relief of eye strain and the management of RSI while using your computer.