8 reasons for eye strain in the office

Jul 9th, 2019 (updated on Sep 14th, 2019) Tisho Iliev and Milena Ilieva, MD
Eye
Eye (photo by Unsplash)

The article has been verified by Milena Ilieva, MD, for medical accuracy.

Over the years, I have experienced eye strain in the office for various reasons. I will be happy to share my thoughts and tips with you. Eye strain is typically related to CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome). Other symptoms are burning or itching sensation, blurred vision and dry eyes.

Dear reader, I will assume your eyes are checked by an ophthalmologist and the reason for the strain is not in your eyes, but in the way you use them.

I compiled a list of 8 scenarios which might be a cause for eye strain in the office. I will propose a bunch of solutions, too. I will skip the common tips like "blink often", "take breaks", "20/20/20 rule" or "limit screen time". At the end I will let you know about the Areds 2 eye strain vitamins I've been using for the last couple of years. Now let's go ahead and troubleshoot your issue!

1. Incorrect screen positioning leads to eye strain

There are three important components of screen positioning which could lead to eye strain - distance, height and angle.

Distance

Both AOA (American Optometric Association) and CCOHS (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety) recommend a viewing distance of 15-30 inches (40-75 cm). OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recommends 20-40 inches (50-100 cm). Some Internet sources suggest you should place your screen an arm away, other - to use the diagonal width of your screen as a minimum distance. My advice is simple - before following such tips, listen to your body first! Test different distances to see what is comfortable for you. Just keep in mind placing your screen too near or too far wouldn’t make your eye muscles happy.

Correct screen distance
Correct screen distance (photo by Athletico)

Height

Let’s do a simple test! Look at the ceiling (or at the sky, if you are outdoors), then look at the floor/ground. Which action makes your eye struggle more? That’s right - looking up requires much more from your eye muscles. This is exactly what happens if you place your monitor too high. But what is the correct height? The top of your screen should be at or slightly below your eye level. Placing your screen too high is one of the most common reasons for eye discomfort in the office.

Correct screen height
Correct screen height (photo by Athletico)

Angle

You should place the screen directly in front of you, not angled to the left or right. If you have a dual monitor setup and you use one of the monitors a lot more than the other, put it at the center. The second monitor could stay on the left or right.

Also, there is something called a viewing angle - this is the angle between your horizontal eye level and the center of the screen. In simple words - how much of your screen is tilted. AOA, CCOHS and OSHA recommend a viewing angle of 15 to 20 degrees. Again, test with different degrees before making the final decision.

Correct screen tilt
Correct screen tilt (photo by Athletico)

2. Use native screen resolution to avoid eye fatigue

Native resolution refers to the number of pixels you have on your screen. For example, the Full HD resolution, 1920x1080 means your screen has a width of 1920 pixels and a height of 1080 pixels. All modern OSs give an option to switch to a lower resolution. Lowering your resolution makes everything bigger on your screen. But using a non-native resolution makes it look blurry and less sharp. Use native resolution if you want to have a crisp and high quality text.

Blurry text can cause an eye strain and this is why using native resolution is recommended.

For Windows 10 users, you can check your resolution by typing "Change display settings" in the search box. In the settings you can go to "Resolution" dropdown. On the image below you can see the native resolution is flagged with "recommended".

Windows native resolution
Windows native resolution (screenshot by Office Tip)

For Mac users, go to Apple menu > System Preferences > Displays > Display. The native resolution is marked with "Best for display" or "Default for display". Use native resolution for sharp text.

Mac native resolution
Mac native resolution (screenshot by Tech Republic)

The reason most users change the resolution in the first place is because the text is too small and this causes an eye discomfort. The correct way of fixing this is to increase the text size.

For Windows 10 users, again, type "Change display settings" in the search box and go to "Change the size of text, apps, and other items". You could play with the percentages until it looks right to you. The font should not be too big nor too small.

Windows text size
Windows text size (screenshot by OfficeTip)

For Mac users, if you are using a Retina Display, choose Apple menu > System Preferences > Displays > Display > Scaled. You will have options for "Larger text". Test to see what works best for you. For Mac users, who do not use a Retina Display, you will see a bunch of resolutions. But switching to lower than the native resolution may make the text blurry. I recommend searching for a way to increase the font size for each application you need instead of switching the resolution.

3. Adjust the brightness of your screen to relieve your eyes

The digital screens are like lamps and we stare at them for at least 8 hours a day in the office. Screen brightness can affect your eyes negatively in two ways. Your screen could be too bright. How do you feel when you look directly at the Sun or at the office fluorescent light? It hurts, right? Too much brightness tires your eyes quicker.

On the other hand, if you lower your screen brightness too much, it could lead to eye fatigue, too. Imagine searching for your phone in a dark room, illuminated only by the Moon. Your eye muscles will struggle a lot.

Bright screen
Bright screen (photo by Loctek)

There are many rules about how to adjust your screen brightness correctly. The most common one is to make it as bright of your surroundings. Another very interesting method is to place a white paper on the half of the monitor and to adjust the brightness to be the same as the paper. What I recommend is to lower your brightness as much as you are comfortable with. The most certain way to adjust the perfect brightness for you is to experiment with different levels of brightness each day in the office for a week or two. At the end of each day you could score your eye fatigue from 1 to 10. At the end, you’ll be pretty sure what works best for you.

4. Air conditioning in the office dry your eyes and cause discomfort

One of the reasons for dry eyes in the office is the air conditioning system during the summer and winter. AC systems reduce the humidity in the air. Depending on the place you live and the humidity levels you have, the air conditioners could lead to scratchy sensation in your eyes and eventually to eye fatigue.

Air conditioners
Air conditioners (photo by Pixabay)

There are a lot of ways to prevent dry eyes in the office. Avoid being close to the AC. If you are placed close to the AC, point its air flow away from your face. Wearing glasses could shield your eyes from an AC air flow as well. Moving away from the AC is an option as well. Try to maintain a temperature of around 73°F (23°C) and do not leave the AC "on" when it is not needed.

A common way of dealing with low levels of humidity is to use a natural humidifier - a bowl of water in the room. The water will evaporate and increase the humidity and the comfort in the room. Also, you could buy an electrical device which moisture the air - a humidifier. Here’s the newest humidifier from Levoit, perfectly suitable for the office:

Levoit Humidifier
image by Levoit

Levoit Dual 100 Humidifier & Diffuser

The newest product by Levoit - Dual 100 Ultrasonic Top-Fill Cool Mist 2-in-1 Humidifier & Diffuser. Perfectly suitable for office or home. (image by Levoit)

5. Contact lenses could increase the likeliness of having an eye strain

A research in Spain proved office workers who wear contact lenses for more than 6 hours/day are more likely to suffer CVS than the workers without contact lenses. The chance of getting an eye strain for contact lens wearers is 65% vs 50% for non-wearers. The friction between the contact lens and the eye lid contribute to eye dryness.

Contact lens
Contact lens (photo by Andy Simmons, CC BY)

A scientific article reports a research which claims the contact lens wearers are 5 times more likely than those who wear glasses, to experience eye dryness symptoms. Another research from the same article proved the contact lenses are the second most significant factor for eye strain after pre existing eye diseases.

The conclusion is pretty obvious. Do not wear contact lenses in the office, wear glasses instead! I know artificial eye drops are recommended to be used in such cases but wearing glasses during work sounds like a more efficient solution to me.

6. Fluorescent lights in the office may cause eye discomfort

You have seen them in almost every office. They are everywhere. That’s right. I’m talking about the fluorescent lights. Employers adore them because they are cheap, energy efficient and last a long time.

Fluorescent office light
Fluorescent office light (photo by Ervins Strauhmanis, CC BY)

Research claims between 5% and 12% of the general population suffers from fluorescent lights. Blue light, flickering and glare are some of the reasons office fluorescent lights cause an eye strain.

Blue light is a color in the "visible light spectrum" that can be seen by the human eye. The Sun emits blue light and the reason the sky appears to be blue is because of the blue light. Our PCs, laptops and phones produce blue light as well. The issue is our eyes are not so good at blocking blue light. Blue light could boost attention, reaction times, and mood, but overexposure to blue light causes headaches and eye strain. So what could you do to protect yourself from the blue light in the office?

Each bulb from a fluorescent fixture in the office has a color temperature measured in Kelvin. To better visualize this, look at the photo below:

Color temperature
Color temperature (image by Cambodia Travel)

The light bulbs could be divided into three categories - warm (2700K – 3000K), cool (3500K – 4100K) and daylight (5000K – 6500K). The general rule is the warmer the color is the lesser blue light it produces. For minimizing blue light, you could use bulbs with a color temperature of 2700K – 3000K. Blue light could be reduced by specialized glasses or by light filters like these:

Fluorescent light filter
image by Educational Insights

Educational Insights Fluorescent Light Filters

Designed to reduce the flicker and glare. They are heat-resistant. You can attach them to a fluorescent fixture using the six built-in magnets. (image by Educational Insights)

The office light brightness is another big issue. You could solve this issue easily - remove some of the bulbs from your fluorescent fixture or you could remove all of the bulbs if there is another fixture close by.

Fluorescent lights do not produce a constant light, they work by flickering thousands of times per second. This creates an illusion of a constant light. A fluorescent light with a magnetic ballast flickers 60 times per second (60 Hz). This is visible to the human eye and causes eye strain. The newer electronic ballasts make the light flicker 20,000 times per second (20 kHz). So make sure you have fluorescent light with electronic ballast.

Finally, ensure you position your screen correctly to reduce the glare from the lights above you.

7. Too dark or too bright office contributes to eye strain

Working in a dark office is preferred by some people. While staring at the screen in a dark environment does not damage your eyes, it causes eye strain. Since the sunlight is different during the day, you should constantly adjust your blinds. But this is better than working on a fully closed blinds.

the Sun
the Sun (photo by Pexels)

Too much brightness, on the other hand, could cause an eye fatigue as well. The key is to keep adjusting the light during the day. Use your blinds on purpose instead of fully closing them. After all, this could make a difference between having a CVS symptoms at the end of the day or not.

8. Use Firefox instead of Chrome to improve text readability (Windows users only)

In 2014 Google released a new version of Chrome with a new rendering engine called DirectWrite, replacing the old one - GDI. Most Chrome users do not report any concerns, but some users reported the text is blurry, hard to read and causes an eye strain.

GDI vs DirectWrite
GDI vs DirectWrite (image by Change.org)

If you read a lot of text in the browser during the day in the office and you have a sensitive vision, this might be a cause for eye strain. The best way to be sure whether this is causing you an eye discomfort is to experiment with using Firefox for a while. For more information on the subject, you could read the petition in the change.org.

Vitamins, vitamins, vitamins!

It’s been said many times that it is unnatural for a human eye to stare at screens for 8 hours a day or more. Frankly, I don’t need a scientific research to prove me this is true. I believe it. If we put our eyes on such stress and we expect them to be healthy, we should fuel them, too.

The most important vitamins and nutrients for our eyes are vitamins A, B, C, E, lutein, zeaxanthin, zinc, copper and omega-3 fatty acids. You can get them by eating the correct food. What I do to ensure I get them is using eye supplements. The product I’ve been using for the past couple of years helps significantly with dry eye and eye strain:

Areds 2
image by Physician's choice

Areds 2 Eye Vitamins

Areds 2 by Physician's Choice includes Lutemax 2020® - a high potency extract of Lutein & Zeaxanthin. It is clinically shown to improve visual performance, helps eye strain and protect eyes against damaging blue light. (image by Physician's choice)

The article has been verified by Milena Ilieva, MD, for medical accuracy.

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Milena Ilieva
Milena Ilieva, MD
Milena Ilieva, MD
A Doctor of Medicine with 25 years of experience in the field. She graduated from the Medical University of Varna in 1992. In 2009 she graduated from the Trakia University with “General Medicine” specialty. Milena Ilieva, MD, is currently based in Stara Zagora, Bulgaria and has patients of all ages, including children. She is interested in endocrinology and promotes healthy eating.
Tisho Iliev
Tisho Iliev
Tisho Iliev
An IT specialist with 8+ years of experience in developing software solutions. I have been working in multiple US - based corporations. How the working environment impacts the employees has always been fascinating to me. The working conditions, underestimated by many employers, contribute to the health and productivity of the employees and always affect the outcome of a project in a positive or negative way.
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