For all of the ergonomic assessments that I do in the office, about 99 per cent of the people I see don’t know how to adjust their office chairs to fit them! A poorly adjusted chair combined with sedentary work positions can become a recipe for disaster.

I would wager that I’m not the only one seeing these results.

As a professional, how often have you heard things like:

  • “I just don’t think that I’m doing it right…”
  • “If someone where to sit in my chair and adjust it, I wouldn’t know how to make it fit me again…”
  • “I know my chair doesn’t fit me right, but I don’t know what to do…”
  • “I know that my back pain is caused by my chair…”

I certainly have… 

Research has also found that just because a highly adjustable chair is present in an office, there is no guarantee that its user has been trained to use it, or does.

For all of these compelling reasons, I’m going to dive into some recent research that looks more into why this may be the case.

Why So Many Office Workers Leave Their Chair Unadjusted

Ok. I think it’s valuable to start this deep dive with all the features that potentially could be present on a typical ergonomics task chair. The amount of features that a chair has is proportional to its cost. Meaning, that the more expensive office chairs will likely be equipped with all of these below. As the saying goes: essentially you pay to play…

Typical Ergonomic Task Chair Features

Below are all the features that an office worker may be required to understand and adjust:

  1. Lumbar (lower back) support: The lumbar support should be adjustable whenever possible; ideally, the lower back support should be height and pressure adjustable. However, most chairs that are available today won’t likely have both types of adjustments standard. Usually only the backrest height lumbar adjustment is standard and the pressure adjustment is usually an expensive add-on. If you have the means, I’ve seen a lot of positive outcomes with having both types of adjustments in chairs. Note: adjustability in pressure is usually accomplished with some sort of air bladder that can be inflated/deflated or with tension adjustments on the back of the chair.
  2. Synchro-tilt functionality (ability to change the entire angle of the seat pan and backrest; they move together as a unit): Synchro-tilt is a common feature for the large majority of new chairs these days and usually comes with a free-float feature that can be used when the function is unlocked. The free-float feature essentially turns your chair into a rocking chair where sitting changes from a static to more of a dynamic type of movement. Those who use this function tend to like it.
  3. Multi-tilt functionality (ability to angle and lock the backrest into many different back positions): The multi-tilt function tends to be a standard option with higher-end type of ergonomic chairs. Otherwise multi-tilt is considered to be an ‘extra’ for many base model chairs. Multi-tilt functionality may cost you a little extra, but this feature is a big value-add since research is now recommending that the most optimal backrest angle for comfort is slightly reclined (between 95 and 115 degrees) instead of the ‘traditional’ sitting upright posture (90 degrees). The multi-tilt function allows you to make the adjustment and easily lock it into place. Note: You can have a multi-tilt combined with a synchro-tilt on a chair, it is usually pretty standard.
  4. Chair tension adjustability: Having the ability to adjust the chair’s tension has also become a standard feature these days on new chairs. This feature controls the ease that the synchro-tilt function works as well as how much ‘give’ or flexibility you have with your free float function (aka rocking chair ability) of the chair. Less tension means more freedom of movement when the synchro-tilt function is unlocked.
  5. Seat height adjustability: Adjusting the chair’s height is completely standard these days and has been for a very long time. If your chair cannot adjust its height, it is definitely time to look at purchasing a different (newer) chair!
  6. Seat pan depth adjustability: A seat pan slider is suggested to get the best fit out of the chair. It’s a commonly overlooked feature, but fitting the seat pan can go a long way to help solve lower back discomfort. Additionally, if you are looking to purchase a chair that will be shared amongst many people, this feature will help fit maybe 90 percent of people due to its depth adjustability. For those that are very small or very large, one standard sized chair will likely not be able to accommodate their thigh length so you may need to look at speciality sized chairs. Ideally, there should be about 2–3 fingers between the edge of the chair and the back of the calves!
  7. Armrest adjustability: The options for armrest adjustability include height, width, and length. To accommodate as many people as possible with one type of chair design, armrests should at least be height and width (usually can pivot towards the user). The armrest length feature is a useful adjustment if they come in contact with the desk, preventing you from getting close (and comfortable) to your work.

By looking at the list above, you can almost already see where the issues are going to pop up. From an Ergonomist’s perspective these features are not only useful to fit the chair to the user but can also reduce the likelihood of long-term back health issues, as I wrote about in this past article. 

Next, let’s get into the issues to why adjustments aren’t being made.

Ideally, office workers should be changing their backrest angles between about 95 and 115 degrees, have their back comfortably supported on the backrests (meaning the lumbar support needs to be comfortable), and the user should be changing their back angles between 95 and 115 degrees to avoid longterm wear and tear on their intervertebral discs.

This strategy is mirrored in this research: Regular adjustment of the backrest function from a fixed to a reclining setting allows the worker to stretch and extend their spine to reduce back discomfort,

That’s a lot to remember!  

Knowing these functions are one thing, applying them is something entirely different. Fear not, this is something that the research is saying too!

It’s good common practice to show office workers how to exactly adjust their chairs so it fits them very well. On top of that, I find that it’s extremely useful to not only demonstrate, but to also get into the reasoning why adjustments are so useful, and then finally to have the user sit in their chair so you can walk through all possible adjustments.

To add to this strategy, research has found that:

A highly adjustable chair (and office ergonomics training) reduced musculoskeletal symptom development over the workday, particularly in the neck and shoulders.

Here are some really useful points to add to your office ergonomic assessments and training strategies. This is really useful information to share with organizations as to why spending a little more on yearly review training will go a long way to ensure those big investment in chairs are used.

Here’s why:

  • Chair adjustment was more common in initial chair use compared with later use, as found in this research.
  • When chair users are comfortable, they are less likely to re-adjust, found in this research.
  • Physical barriers to chair adjustment include broken or stiff chair controls and the perceived lack of a physical need to adjust.
  • Controls that require the user to get out of the chair to operate may present barriers by limiting physical feedback, found in this and this research articles.
  • Perceived cognitive barriers include the absence of instructions and issues of complexity such as confusing instructions, as found here and here.

What does this all mean?

All available research makes it very clear that organizations simply can’t just give staff fancy, new, top-of-the-line ergonomic chairs and expect them to be used correctly. This cannot be organizations’ ONLY strategy for ergonomics.

For all the reasons above, this simply WILL NOT WORK!

It is just so important to demonstrate features of the chair with users so they crystal clear about the how and why they should be using chair adjustments and why the fit of the chair can go a long way to reduce the likelihood of developing long-term discomfort.

What Do You Think About Chair Adjustments In The Office?

What do you think the best way to get people to use their chair the most effectively in the office is? Leave a comment below!