Here’s a question for you: Should armrests be used in the office? Armrests are some of the most interesting parts of doing ergonomic assessments. It’s also a common debate within the ergonomics community on how to navigate the use of armrest on our client chairs - are they absolutely necessary or is there too much ergonomic risk involved? In this blogpost, I’m going to share some information to add clarity to how you approach this topic with your clients.

Do Armrests Help or Hinder?

Choosing whether to recommend armrests or not has been a wide discussion in the ergonomics community for many years, and there are really two different and separate options when it comes to the use of armrests on office chairs:

  1. Armrests are beneficial as they support our upper limbs and reduce the amount of load down to our lower back while sitting.
  2. The best possible posture is attained when you’re not using armrests. 

You've probably heard of this debate before. Perhaps you've even been in a situation with a client when you considered how to best navigate armrests. 

The questions are:

  • Where do you stand on the use of armrests on chairs?
  • Do you prefer if the armrests are attached?
  • Or is it more comfortable to use an ergonomic office chair without them?

Usually, people request armrests for work when they start to notice pain in their muscles, which is normally in the arms, upper back, and neck areas. There’s no doubt that armrests can be very beneficial in relieving discomfort. However, in my humble opinion from years of doing office ergonomic assessments, they are really only useful under optimal conditions. What this means is that in order to improve the ergonomics of a set-up, the armrests must fit your client appropriately while maintaining a neutral body posture while sitting. 

It seems simple enough, yet not every chair allows this to be.

Proper Sitting Posture

To keep the shoulder relaxed, it must be in a neutral posture. Your client should ideally be able to sit with their shoulders not raised or depressed, and the upper arm is comfortably tucked next to their torso when they’re working.

Theoretically, this working posture will not expose your client to any ergonomic risk that can lead to the development of an ergonomic injury, nor will it contribute to any pain or discomfort related to a past injury.

In addition to the postural benefits, armrests can be incredibly useful in assisting your client with getting in and out of the chair. This can be overlooked by both clients and ergonomics consultants alike and only truly realized when there are no armrests attached.

Appropriate Fit Is Essential

There’s been a number of studies that explain why the use of armrests can be important to your health and comfort while sitting at your work desk. And in my experience, they can help prevent musculoskeletal disorders to the upper extremities, such as shoulder and upper back strain. But here’s one caveat:

The armrests must properly fit your client in order to be beneficial. 

Ergonomic risk occurs when optimal armrest positioning isn't met. This is manifested in many ways. One of the most common occurs when employers only buy one type of chair for all of their employees. And as I’ve mentioned in my previous blogs, it’s very rare to have one chair that can accommodate the majority of the workforce. This poses a problem for those employees who are not considered to be ‘average’.

If armrests are in a fixed position or limited in height, width, and pivot, then they most certainly won’t fit your client correctly and can’t be used properly. The ‘one size fits all’ chair design usually misses a huge part of the workforce in the following ways:

  • Width - For smaller or more petite employees, there can be a substantial mismatch between the armrest placement and shoulder width. This means that the armrests are too wide for the client, and this results in outwardly flexed (abducted) shoulder positions. This is considered to be an awkward posture and can lead or contribute to discomfort over time.
  • Height - The armrest height adjustability may lack accuracy so it results in awkward shoulder positions of either the shoulders being raised up or depressed. 
  • Length - The armrest length may be too long and can prevent your client from sitting close to their desk. This increases the client's reach and can even result in the client leaning forward in their chair. Over time of doing this, it can contribute to lower back strain and even discomfort! This is considered to be a negative as it encourages your client to lean forward (which is a non-neutral back position) and contributes to shoulder awkwardness.

Case Study

The best answer to the question as to whether or not armrests are the right ergonomic solution for a particular person is that: it depends. Ultimately, the solution is totally dependent on your client's preferences, budget, habits, as well as your personal experience. Let me build on this thought process by sharing a past ergonomic assessment of mine.

I’ve done work with a past client who did not have optimally positioned armrests—the armrest length prevented my client from getting close to the workstation. Additionally, the client was complaining of shoulder pain.

We ruled out any outside causes to this pain, and concluded that it must be a result of the non-optimal placement of the armrests: they were too wide for her and the height adjustability wasn’t accurate. My client also reported that she felt that she could only use one armrest at a time, just because they were far too wide for her.

There were three options that I suggested to my client:

  1. Remove the armrests completely
  2. Lower the armrest so they’re out of her use
  3. Replace them with armrests that are both height and width adjustable. 

After much thought, we determined that replacing the armrests with a more adjustable pair was the best option. She found an alternative armrest that met our metrics on her chair manufacturer’s website. After following up with my client several months after the assessment, she reported that the new armrests were very helpful and also really reduced her shoulder pain.

Note: The key element in any ergonomic set-up is that everything has to be set up to fit your client correctly. Having fully adjustable armrests (height, width, forward-to-backward slide, and inwards-outwards pivot) on a good ergonomic chair is an important part of creating a safe and healthy work environment.

As Ergonomic Professionals, we need to learn not only the process and tools of how to do ergonomic assessments but also how to market our services. So if you haven’t had a chance to download the ‘Marketing & Selling Ergonomics’ FREE Guide, you can grab it here. My signature program, Accelerate: The Business of Ergonomics, helps Ergonomics Consultants like you use a variety of modern marketing strategies to get more reach for your services. If you’re interested in joining Accelerate, just click on this link to get on the waitlist.


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