Lots of things kill us slowly, and we’re still working to figure them all out. For example, we know now that heavy smoking and alcoholism do nasty things and kill people, but even obvious “lifestyle hazards” like these are recent discoveries; in the time of Mad Men, people smoked unfiltered cigarettes and gulped liquor like the sky was falling. Then we got more education and more legislation, and things like secondhand smoke in offices went away; around the same time, we learned similar things about asbestos, radiation, and tanning beds. For a short while, the non-smokers and vice-free people of the office believed they’d escaped the health risks of their time.
But now there are new health risks, many from seemingly innocent sources. Because of BPA, for instance, we’re now skeptical of plastic. Because of BGH, we’re now skeptical of milk. Because of GMOs, we’re skeptical of corn—and so on. The sleeping threats don’t end with food science or chemicals, and in fact they follow us all the way to our desks; infographics like this one spell out, in no uncertain terms, that your chair could be killing you. This has led to a certain degree of paranoia among desk-dwellers, who once considered themselves safe and comfortable. Worse, it can be hard to tell fact from fiction when so many facts are new; anyone can imagine how cell phones might grow brain tumors, so we spread that rumor even when the ACS would later dispel it.
On one hand, we don’t want to be dismissive of new scientific findings just because, in their newness, they seem like fads. On the other hand, we do want to be dismissive of fear-mongering, bad analysis, and unpractical suggestions. In this post, we’re going to briefly examine three of the latest hazards for people at desks, then break down the best advice on each one.
Your Chair Might Kill You
Fact and Fiction—Sitting really does have long-term health consequences—if you do it wrong. At no point did our reading suggest that sitting for any amount of time was bad; most articles focused on the risks of prolonged sitting, and many suggested that good posture and regular breaks were sufficient to undo those risks. Still, sitting for long periods uninterrupted has been shown to lead to back problems, increased blood insulin, and elevated cholesterol by scientific studies, and all of those have serious impacts on our health, so we should all be sure to avoid chair-a-thons.
In Our Experience—The quality of your chair really does matter. Comfortable chairs aren’t always expensive; we’ve done fine on $100 chairs. They're not all built alike, however, so it’s important to select a body style and shape that you like, along with the lumbar support and recline you want. Of course, you don’t just worry about sitting equipment, or which chair; you should also be concerned about sitting behavior. Fortunately, we have a very social office, and we often work from home, so in both cases we have reason to get up frequently. As a result, we've never had lasting back or neck strain, even when we owned uncomfortable chairs.
Best Practices—Create a reason to habitually get up every so often, at least once an hour. Unless the area beyond your desk is full of distractions, try not to “collect” everything you’d want around your desk, since you'll have less reason to get up. Remain conscious of your posture; if your neck or back is uncomfortable, adjust yourself carefully (if you don’t take a short break first).
One of the best pieces of advice we’ve ever heard: invest in things that go between you and the ground. In other words, make sure you get good shoes, good tires, good mattresses, and—if you’re a woman—good bras. Same principle applies for chairs; if you think it’s important to buy the right mattress, consider that you might spend just as much time in your desk chair. So take the time to select what will feel right for you, and if it’s something you can afford, spend the money.
Your Screen Will Make You Go Blind
Fact and Fiction—Eye strain is definitely real, and it’s definitely caused by factors around our monitors. But it’s also entirely preventable, and the monitors themselves are not to blame.
Eye strain happens when the eyes have to focus for long periods of time without rest. In many cases, the person is sitting close to the monitor, which reduces blinking and dries out the cornea; in some cases, the person may be squinting, further straining muscles around the eyes. Therefore, to correct eye strain, we can sit further from the monitor, adjust its height, change the ambient light, or invest in a better monitor that displays content more crisply and requires less effort to read.
We can lay to rest any rumors that monitors make you go blind over time, or that sitting too close gives you cancer or diabetes. Many of these notions, such as the diabetes claim, come from observed correlations that ignore more likely causes; yes, people who heavily use their monitors are more likely to have diabetes, but that’s likely due to sedentary lifestyle—not the contents of anyone's browser history. Other claims are outdated or false; for example, the claim that monitors cause cancer probably originates from the old advice about not sitting too close to the TV set because Panasonic once admitted that the sets emitted small amounts of radiation. Since screens don’t emit radiation anymore, you can sit as close as you (comfortably) want to.
In Our Experience—The single biggest improvement we ever made, in terms of reducing eye strain, was switching over to MacBooks with Retina screens. Even on a smaller 13-inch screen, the pixel density is well above 1080p, and thus every little detail is crystal-clear—including, most importantly, small sizes of text. We can read from these screens all day, comfortably, under virtually all light conditions, and that's whether we use a laptop stand or not. This has been our silver-bullet solution; we haven’t needed anything else to help with eye strain.
Best Practices—Even if you don’t use a Mac, you can (and should) invest in a nice monitor; you can spend as much as you want, but even for $300 or less you can score a 1440p monitor or a bigger 1080p monitor, and you’ll be doing your eyes the biggest favor you can. This should make basic sense: if you want to fix screen-related eye problems, a better screen will definitely help.
Otherwise, the best advice for your eyes is probably the same advice for your soul (and legs): get up and look at something else now and again. Make sure you see the sky every day. Not only will it help your eyes to reset, but it will help clear your mind and sort out your problems.
40 Hours or Bust—Do We Work Too Much?
Fact and Fiction—There is scientific evidence here, but nothing that can identify the Ideal Number of hours of work per week, much less a number for all cultures and industries. The other evidence at play is largely historical, anecdotal, or circumstantial.
First, the history. Industrial workers would often work 100 hours per week in late-1800s America, until organized labor began making a push for a shorter work week. The 40-hour week became the legal standard in 1940, carried by the popular idea of “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours to spend as you choose.” But technology eventually allowed the office to follow people home, and more salaried positions began requiring employees to stay at the office without overtime pay. In other words, the trend is that people are working more than 40 hours again, and it’s becoming more necessary to limit one’s hours than to fill them.
Research tells us this much: when people work more than 40 hours per week, their productivity decreases for every hour past the fortieth. Case studies of developed nations such as the Nordic countries extending worker benefits have seen a measurable increase in both productivity and worker satisfaction, and companies in the U.S., especially in sectors like tech, are becoming more flexible with schedules and work options to the satisfaction of their employees, even experimenting with a shorter 32-hour week in some cases. In short: the 40-hour week still seems like a good ideal, one that properly balances worker satisfaction and effectiveness, and maybe we should strive to live up to this one. It doesn't seem to pay off long-run when we work more than that.
In Our Experience—We work more than 40 hours per week because we have to. We don’t mind because we’re doing what we want to do. Still, given a desire for free time, we’re constantly struggling to find ways to “work smarter,” to make an impact with less grinding and less time lost. We’ve also found that, if we try to work full days every day without time off, our brains eventually force time off in the forms of fatigue and lost focus. Occasionally, the machines have to shut down so that we can un-gum the gears and function smoothly the next day; we’ve realized this is a feature, not a bug. Lastly, we've figured out that, though we’re everyday-work kind of people, who like to keep daily touch with everything, our ideal is still something like a 40-hour week, with shorter days spreading the work partially into the weekend. To us, it’s just a question of how a person wants to work their hours.
Best Practices—Like us, you probably don’t have much control over the volume of work on your plate, so ultimately you’ll do what you gotta do. As we said, it’s a question of how to work the hours. If you have some control over when you complete your work, experiment and try to find useful routines. So much as possible, align your work with the best times to do it so you’re always at maximum effectiveness. Lastly, make commitments to yourself and others so that you’re forced to waste less time and keep your hours more tightly. In this regard, you should also consider ideas like setting a consistent bedtime so your sleep is more reliable and you have a “hard stop” to your day.
Taken together, you see that the best overall suggestions sound like common sense. Take breaks and pace yourself. If something is uncomfortable, adjust it. If you can't see something well, either you need glasses or you need a better way to read it. Still, the broader purpose of all this news and gossip—to make us more careful for our own good—is well-received, and certainly we want to be informed so we don't die before our time. After all, if we do die younger, we want it to be our own damn fault, and not from anything as dumb as the chair we chose to sit in.
Thanks for reading Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog. (Last week, we wrote about the importance of delusion as explained through comedies Silicon Valley and Entourage, so click here to take a look if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter here.