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I recently changed jobs, and am now working as a postdoc in Belgium at a major university. The desks in our department are not adjustable, and they are too high for me (75 cm). Furthermore, the desktops are reinforced by metal bars, giving them an effective height of about 9 cm, preventing me from raising my chair to a desired height.

My job requires me to work essentially all day behind a computer, but in the current situation, doing so hurts my wrists. However, the department seems unwilling to buy an adjustable desk, even when I pay for it myself. What are my options here?

Update: Thanks for all the suggestions! I'm now in touch with the department responsible for employee health & safety, and my supervisor is also willing to help. For the time being I'm using a thick mousepad to make the edge of the desk a bit softer.

A picture of the desk

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    In the meantime while you might want to try asking for possible workarounds on Lifehacks. – user1306322 Jul 27 '16 at 18:14
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    In the meantime try putting your keyboard on your lap – patrickInMpls Jul 27 '16 at 19:13
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    push your keyboard further on your desk, so that your whole forearm rests on the desk. Remove the armrests of your chair if that prevents you from raising your chair. – njzk2 Jul 28 '16 at 4:50
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    <Workplace>Start looking for new wrists.</Workplace> – Lightness Races in Orbit Jul 28 '16 at 9:38
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    I sometimes sit with my whole legs curled on the chair (like children in kindergarten). It makes me a bit higher and allows to raise the chair higher. But I don't think this position is good for 8h of sitting. – nuoritoveri Jul 28 '16 at 10:15
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Pursue this with a university department of occupational health (or the closest equivalent department).

Most major universities will have a department that is designed to look after the well-being of employees, and they probably have processes in place to make sure that workers who sit at desks have appropriate equipment.

At my (UK-based) employer, at my request someone would come and assess my workstation, then recommend various expensive equipment if they felt it was needed for my health--such as special chairs, foot rests, computer monitor stands, etc. The department would be pretty much obligated to then purchase this equipment for me.

Procedures vary from place to place, but I would expect most large organizations to have some existing policies to address your needs. Your direct supervisor might not be supportive of this, but you can go to HR if you aren't sure what you need to do.

I only have direct experience of UK and US universities, but I would be surprised if it were much different in Belgium. Some quick Googling turned up an example of what I'm talking about at a Belgian institution: https://www.uantwerpen.be/en/about-uantwerp/organisational-structure/central-services/prevention-and-protection/

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    Thanks for your answer, there is indeed such a department at my university, and I will update the question when I hear back from them! – Jannis Teunissen Jul 27 '16 at 14:52
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    In most EU countries this is mandatory for most organizations. They either have their own in-house department for it or hire an external company for this sort of thing. – Tonny Jul 27 '16 at 18:58
  • @tonny - it may depend on the size of the company as to whether this is mandatory or not – Matt Wilko Jul 29 '16 at 11:02
  • @MattWilko Of course. But the minimum size varies quite a bit from country to country. Even within 1 country it can depend on the type of business/organization. – Tonny Jul 29 '16 at 12:29
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Aside from following Dan's advice, which is very good, and which I won't repeat here.

I'd also make sure to make those requests in writing. It's much more difficult to turn down requests like these, when they're made in writing, because if the employee does get hurt, then there is a paper trail actually proving it was the fault of the person rejecting the request.

And if your wrists are hurting already, it may not be a bad idea to get a doctor or a physical therapist involved as well. Having an official doctor's note that accompanies your request would make it that much harder to ignore.

Also, instead of replacing the entire desk, take a look at keyboard/mouse foldable vanishing trays (that get hidden below the desk).

enter image description here

enter image description here

Or this one below, which doesn't seem to require special installation of any kind. So perhaps, you could buy one yourself, label it clearly or get it engraved as your personal property (and keep the receipt just in case), and come in early one day when no one is around yet to put it under your desk (without asking anyone's permission).

enter image description here

Now I have no idea if those trays would actually work for you. If you're looking for more specific suggestions, you may want to post an actual picture of your desk, or give us a link to a similar one in a catalog.

Also, when talking to your doctor, or occupational hazards specialist, see if some wrist guards wouldn't help relieve some of the pressure on your wrists. Personally, I have no idea if they would. This isn't my area of expertise. It's just an idea.

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    Famous quote: "It is easier to apologize than to beg for permission." – user37746 Jul 27 '16 at 17:23
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    I second the recommendation of an adjustable keyboard/mouse tray. I have had good experience with these for well over twenty years, after almost doing serious damage to wrist and neck early in my career from working at non-adjustable desks that were too high. – njuffa Jul 27 '16 at 18:19
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    +1 for visiting with your physician about it early. Not only for your own physical well-being, but also because having a doctor's note at the beginning can iron out a lot of potential wrinkles. – Dan Henderson Jul 28 '16 at 4:46
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    Good advice if you have no support from your employer. But if the OP's university is like most in Europe, they will totally support this (health assessment, purchase equipment, etc.) if you get in touch with the right department. So try that route first, definitely. – user45590 Jul 28 '16 at 9:06
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I am going to answer this with some advice.

Every single programmer I know with any experience has faced this problem. It's not that we are the only field that has this issue, it's just where my experience is.

Now, RSI is VERY SERIOUS. That little bit of discomfort you feel now will evolve into a serous medical condition that (at this time) can not be fixed. If you don't do something about it now, you will live in pain for the rest of your life. I can not stress enough how serous this issue can be. Once those nerves are damaged, there is no going back. Right now, there is no medication, surgery, or physical therapy that will fix the issue. The point is handle this now not later.

So lets look at some options. Starting with the most realistic and going from there.

Take breaks

First RSI is caused by repetition. The best way to combat it is to stop being repetitive. Take a 5 minuet break every 25 mins. Use the pomodoro technique if you wish. But frequent short breaks are the key. The great thing is that this is something you can do your self.

Sit properly (or stand properly)

Remember this:

Keyboard Posture

DO IT!!!!! Can't stress that enough. It's probably the single largest issue. Now I rank this number two because you already mention that you can't adjust your keyboard to make this happen. See the other answers for ideas on how to address that.

Get the Gel pads and bean bags

Keyboard Gels

These things can actually work against you as they urge you to rest your wrists on the desk, but lets's face it, sometimes were going to be lazy, and these help.

See a doctor and physical trainer

This may or may not be covered by workman's comp. It may or may not be covered by insurance. GO ANYWAY. They will take a look at your situation and give you advise. Because your only uncomfortable now, they will likely give you a note for your employer (and this can be really important if you later need surgery) and some simple excersizes to do to help. They feel stupid, but can usually be done at your desk in just a few seconds.

The Point

I can not stress though enough. As someone who is going through this, and has friends and coworkers that go though this, I can assure you, what ever head ache you need to go though now while the situation is uncomfortable, DO IT. You do not want to end up with a real RSI injury. If it means you have to quite your job and work elsewhere, do it! Hands down, finding a new job will be much easier on you and your family then if you let this issue go unattended. That said, every company I have seen has been aware of these issues and is more then willing to work with it's employees on these issues.

Bonus Materials

These can help

Braces like these can help as they provide support. Consider them. There not very comfortable, but it may be a better option then having a problem get worse. Still better if you fix the underling issue though.

The Veridesk is an easy way to turn a normal desk into a sit stand desk. There not cheap but it may make a good option for home.

The workman keyboard layout makes a big difference to me. It means retraining, but it was worth it for me. YMMV.

Getting a chair that is "too big" for your weight can be a great help. That extra height and padding may lift you up enough to make a difference. I do this, and while it's more expensive, it's worth it. On the plus side, the chair lasts forever cause it was designed for someone twice my weight.

A friend of mine purchased a LEAP chair. Personally I think it's too much money, but he swears by it so much I will list it here anyway.

Common Issues

I want to list these here as I feel it's important. Before you have an RSI injury you think the other people are just whiny or such, but once you have one you get some pretty serious side effects. These are ones that are common between myself and my colleges.

  • Weight limits - All of us limited to lifting nor more then 5lbs for the rest of our lives, on paper. Generally we ignore this one, but we all have personal limits where lifting something just isn't possible anymore. Mine for example is around 25 pounds. One of my friends is limited to 2.5 pounds. This man means some serous things like not being able to hold your baby or toddler.

  • Numbness - All of us experience some level of numbness. That means we cut our selves, burn our selves and generally injure our selves without noticing. The largest risk here in infection. It doesn't itch, so how are you supposed to "know". It seems minor but it's not.

  • Loss of control - All of us experience a loss of fine motor skills. Usually this means forks are tricky and chop sticks are plain out. Sometimes it means your SO has to cut your food for you cause you can't work a steak knife.

  • Loss of twist - All of us experience a inability to twist things like screwdrivers or open bottles. Some to more of a degree then others. But, for example I can't use a screwdriver. One of my friends can't open soda bottles and the like.

  • Loss of income - Most of us have experienced a direct loss of income. If you are in so much pain that you can't get out of bed (yep, sounds fake it's not) then you can't work. If you have a surgery (which for all of us that I am aware of will not fix the problem, only make the pain less) you can expect 6 months of pure down time. 6 weeks of which you won't be able to use your hands at all.

  • Loss of range - All of us are unable to "work" above shoulder level. Changing light-bulbs for example is just not going to happen.

  • The Lock - All of us have experienced, what can only be described as a lock up. Your arm and hand mussels contract at 100% strength and don't let go. It's easily the most pain I have ever felt. It may cause blackouts and shock from the pain, and you may rip the mussel from the bone. It's most unpleasant. Worse is there is no fix. If it stays that way for more the 4 hours, the ER staff may cut the nerve completely. Usually they apply mussel relaxers, and after a while that works.

  • Pain. Simply put, once you get an RSI injury, you are in constant pain. It will effect your sleep, your life, your work, everything.

Now I say all that, so that you understand, that the discomfort you feel now, while easy to ignore and stick a bandage on, could one day come back to bite you in the butt in a major way. Spend what ever time, money, and effort you need to. Address this issue now, and if you can not with your current employer then switch employers.

Keep in mind, that I am a programmer and my sample is programmers. While RSI is not programmer specific we may have factors that influence it. For example, we use a lot more !@#:,<>{}[]=-+() then most people. We also type in less English then most var foo = bar is not the same pattern as Foo is equal to bar. Not all programmers may face this problem, and not all computer users. With some effort now, while the desk is uncomfortable, you can avoid this all together. Mostly we (my friends and I) have this problem because we didn't know any better. Companies were less aware of the issues, and none of us had anyone to tell us how serous it could become. Your situation is different and you can avoid a real RSI injury.

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    The right/wrong hand angle diagram seems to ignore the fact that there's a body taking up space between your shoulders! Hands should lay at the same angle as the TFC and UJM keys on your keyboard. – pkamb Jul 28 '16 at 20:33
  • @pkamb There are many keyboards that resolve that issue by splitting the keyboard into halves and angle them. I like the MS Ergonomic 4000 but there are many options. Takes a while to get used to, but not only more ergonomic, it also forces people to really learn 10 finger typing. – Voo Jul 28 '16 at 21:55
  • @Voo Yeah, those are good. What works for me is to simply angle my hands to match the angled key columns on a normal keyboard. Gives you the same comfortable finger curls as a split layout. It also really helps to type the left columns as [QAShift], [WSZ], [EDX], etc. rather than the more commonly taught (but ergonomic nightmare) [QAZ], [WSX], [EDC], etc. – pkamb Jul 28 '16 at 22:12
  • This is a good answer - it might be worth expanding to talk about ergonomic mice too! – Ian Jul 29 '16 at 7:32
  • @pkamb interested in what you mean here. You mean the right hand should be at the same angle as keys T,F,C? I find that quite un-natural. If I placed my index finger on J, my next 2 fingers naturally rest on I,O and pinkie on : – Ian Jul 29 '16 at 7:35
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Privet Jannis,

Your story sounds familiar. When I started my PhD (moral phylosophy) in France in 2013, I found myself in a similar situation. All furniture was outdated; chairs, tables, it was all non-adjustable. It looked straight out of an early 60's office. Coming from Russia I thought I was used to old stuff, but this was on a whole new level. After several weeks of sitting behind my desk I was starting to have physical (and mental) complaints. I felt pain in my back, neck and wrists. Also, my suppressed agoraphobia started showing itself again. Naturally I asked the department for a new desk and chair, but they refused, on a basis that is still unclear to me. The crooked thing was that the administrative department itself appeared to be very well provided with adjustable office furniture. At the time, I considered two options:

  1. Find the best-looking furniture-decision-maker of the department, make love to her (several times), convince her to buy you the desk and chair you want.
  2. Take legal actions.

I opted for the second option as the furniture-decision-lady was in my case a man. Luckily, EU-regulations are such that employees must be given 'reasonable working conditions'. Providing adjustable office furniture is one of the key elements of this policy. In mother Russia, they would have laughed right in my face, in France I had to wait exactly four days for my new desk to arrive, they even through in a massage-parlor session as a sweetener. To be honest, I got sacked a year later, although I'm not entirely sure that it had something to do with it.

So my suggestion: don't hesitate to bring out the EU policy big guns. I wish you the best of luck!

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    While I support your out of the box thinking, trading sexual favors for a new desk is verboten in most work places. :) – JasonJ Jul 27 '16 at 15:23
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jul 30 '16 at 22:10
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Jannis - I'm quite surprised there was initial reluctance to fix the problem; most institutions (certainly in the UK in my experience) tend to be quite hot on health and safety, because it's something they can get into serious trouble over if it's considered they haven't met their obligations. I'm not making a positive/negative comment on the rules - only noting my experience.

In addition to dan1111's comments - it might be worth looking into soft wrist support gel strips, and exercises you can do to help prevent/cope with RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury); you need the desk/chair height fixing first, but once you've got something close to correct then those extra measures can help reduce discomfort considerably.

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Standing Desk

Make lemonade from lemons by creating a “standing desk”. Both scientific studies and anecdotes are saying that “sitting is the new smoking” in terms of health hazards in the modern age.

enter image description here

With some creativity and resourcefulness you can use some boxes, shelving, or other items to throw together a standing workstation for little or no money.

If you keep it temporary in design, then likely no objection from the University. Based on my experience in the corporate world, one possible objection is legal liability in that if you make a formal request it raises occupational safety and other issues. So as suggested in comments, better to ask forgiveness than permission. Just do it. With no official request on file, the administrators can look the other way.

You do not describe your computer. If using a laptop, you definitely should be adding a keyboard and mouse/trackpad and boosting the screen height to avoid craning your neck too far down or up. Again boxes or shelving can do the trick, or get the very handy Roost Laptop Stand.

Too much standing still may not be good for you either. I suggest breaking it up with some sitting and walking, as we are built to move.

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    Even if this is not a permanent solution, it will certainly bring more attention to you issue :) – nuoritoveri Jul 28 '16 at 10:19
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    I use a sit/stand desk. Standing all day is no good. It will cause a different set of injuries. But going back and forth between sitting and standing is perfect. Not to much strain in any one area. – coteyr Jul 28 '16 at 13:15
  • @coteyr: +1 for sit/stand. I've dated enough waitresses and bartenders to know that standing all day is not a good solution. – TMN Jul 28 '16 at 15:15
  • Squatting is good for you too, so make sure and do that sometimes. My aged Doctor squatted next to me today, I was going to say "Wow!" that he could do that. Must be on his feet a lot. – user37746 Jul 29 '16 at 16:22

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