October 3, 2007

Workrave fights repetitive strain injuries

Author: David A. Harding

Taking frequent computer breaks can save you from a debilitating repetitive strain injury (RSI). However, if you're like most people, you probably get caught up in your work and forget to take breaks as often as you should. The Workrave desktop applet can keep you on track.

Workrave is mature software, licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) and installable using the default package repositories of most GNU/Linux distributions. You can also download a binary executable for Microsoft Windows or the source code from the Workrave Web site.

If you install Workrave using a package manager, you can probably start it from either the Applications or Add Applet desktop menus. Otherwise, start Workrave from a command line or application launcher prompt by running the workrave command. Workrave starts as a desktop applet in your desktop environment's panel; if you don't have a desktop environment or a panel, Workrave can start as a small independent window.

A breakdown of the break types

Workrave begins by displaying three empty progress meters that represent three types of breaks: a micro-pause, a rest break, and a daily limit. The empty part of the meters represents the time remaining until the next break, and every second you use the keyboard or mouse causes Workrave to fill part of the empty space. The top meter fills quickest and the bottom meter slowest, because the top meter represents the time left until the next micro-pause, and the bottom meter represents the time left for your daily limit.

When you stop working, the meters stop filling; resume working, and the meters resume filling. If you stop working for a time equivalent to the length of a break, the meters reset to empty. Workrave calls this automatic reset a natural break.

If you work long enough to fill a progress meter, Workrave will begin to nag you by displaying a small borderless window, called a prelude, asking if you want to break. You can ignore the prelude, which includes a progress meter of its own, bound to a 30-second countdown timer. When the timer reaches zero, the prelude disappears. However, the prelude returns in two minutes to nag you again, and it continues the cycle of disappearing and reappearing until you succumb and take a break.

You break by removing your hands from the keyboard and mouse for a few seconds anytime the prelude is displayed. One of the three break windows replaces the prelude. Which window you see depends on which of the three progress meters you filled.

You'll first encounter the 20-second micro-pause. (You can change the durations; I'll discuss that in a bit.) Workrave tells you to take a micro-pause after five minutes of activity. During a micro-pause, you should relax all of the muscles in your hands, arms, shoulders, and back; these 20 seconds of relaxation can help undo the damage of holding yourself in the same tense typing position all day. You should also refocus your eyes on something other than your computer screen; your eye muscles, like your other muscles, can also suffer from RSI.

Workrave stops you from cheating on your breaks by grabbing all input from the keyboard and mouse during breaks. If you need help looking away from your screen during breaks, you can configure Workrave to hide the contents of your screen too.

You can end a break prematurely by clicking on one of the two buttons Workrave places on every break screen: Postpone and Skip. If you press the Postpone button, Workrave will end the break and act like you ignored a prelude; in two minutes, it will nag you to take a break again. If you press the Skip button, Workrave will end the break and act like you relaxed the entire time; the break screen will disappear, and the progress meter will reset to empty.

After 40 minutes of activity, you'll next encounter the eight-minute rest break. You should leave your computer, stretch, and walk around during the rest break. You can safely leave your computer unattended by pressing the Lock Screen button Workrave adds to the rest break screen. If you press this button, Workrave will activate the xlock locking screensaver; xlock requires you to enter your user password before it lets you access your desktop session.

After six hours of activity, you'll encounter the daily limit break. This break doesn't end until the next day, and like the rest break, Workrave displays a Lock Screen button on the daily limit break screen. Workrave also adds a button to shut down the computer.

Auxiliary features

Several features set Workrave apart from other free software for the treatment and prevention of RSI. No feature is more obvious than Ms. Workrave.

Ms. Workrave, a computer-generated model, demonstrates several stretching exercises during rest breaks. Most demonstrations feature several pictures of Ms. Workrave posing with action arrows emphasizing the way to stretch, and text explaining exactly what to do. Two eye-focusing exercises don't feature Ms. Workrave. You can perform any of the exercises in a cubicle.

Workrave keeps statistics about how much time you're active, how often you ignore its nagging, and how intensively you use your keyboard and mouse. For example, Workrave says I started working at 04:16 this morning, and in the time since, I've typed 20,000 characters, moved my mouse 25 meters, ignored two preludes, taken 10 micro-pauses, and taken one rest break in a total of about three hours of activity. You, your doctor, or your therapist can use this information to adjust your RSI treatment.

Finally, Workrave can share information about your activity with other copies of Workrave running on other computers. For example, you can run Workrave on two computers and use a keyboard, video, mouse (KVM) switch to alternate between the two computers while Workrave runs in network mode. Then, no matter which computer you're using, Workrave tells you to take a micro-pause when your total combined activity, from both computers, exceeds five minutes. You can also have Workrave share activity information between your work and home computers to enforce the daily limit most effectively.


You'll probably need to configure Workrave. If you suffer from severe RSI, the default settings might include too few breaks for too little time; if you suffer from mild RSI, the default settings might include too many breaks for too much time. You can also tweak Workrave's user interface or set up its network mode. Configure Workrave by right-clicking on it and selecting Preferences from the menu that appears.

The first category in the Preferences window has three tabs, and each tab corresponds to a break type: micro-pause, rest break, and daily limit. You can adjust the times in each tab as needed. Try to reduce the interruptions as much as possible without feeling pain in your hands, arms, or back during the day or afterwards. You'll find the best settings through trial and error, but your doctor or therapist might suggest good initial settings.

You can adjust Workrave's user interface in the second category of settings. You can enable audio cues that alert you when a break is due or is over, adjust how Workrave displays its progress meters, or force Workrave to always start as an independent window.

In the final category of Workrave's settings, you can adjust Workrave's network mode. You can add the hostnames of other computers running Workrave and create a password to help keep your activity private.

Outside the Preferences dialogue, you can right-click on Workrave to bring up the Mode submenu's three options: normal, quiet, and suspend. So far we've covered how the normal mode works. In quiet mode, Workrave continues to fill its progress meters, but it never nags you or activates a break mode. I use quiet mode when playing games; Workrave doesn't interrupt me at an inconvenient time, but its progress meters do remind me to break periodically. In suspend mode, Workrave stops monitoring the keyboard and mouse for activity. I use suspend mode when someone else uses my computer so their activity doesn't count against me.


Before using Workrave, I didn't know I had the early warning signs of RSI. I didn't realize the pain I occasionally suffered in my hands could become crippling. After using Workrave for several months, I no longer suffer.


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