HowTo: Help Prevent RSI (The Silent Killer) – With Workrave

When most people think of repetitive stress injuries (RSI for short) they probably think about ergonomic keyboards, comfortable chairs, good posture and workspace positioning. In addition to those common cures (which are sometimes really expensive) there is a tool called Workrave that assists you in avoiding RSI by reminding you to just take a break.

It’s available in the Ubuntu and Debian repositories by default, and can be found pre-packaged for other distributions as well. For those of you forced to run Windows at work (You do run Linux at home, don’t you?) there is a version for that as well, available on the Workrave website.

Even if we have a perfectly ergonomic environment (that undoubtedly cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to setup) using a computer for extended periods of time can wreak havok on our body. According to Wikipedia, the following symtoms indicate an increased risk for repetitive stress injuries.

Recurring pain or soreness in neck, shoulders, upper back, wrists or hands.
Tingling, numbness, coldness or loss of sensation.
Loss of grip strength, lack of endurance, weakness.
Muscles in the arms and shoulders feel hard and wiry when palpated.
Pain or numbness while lying in bed. Often early stage RSI sufferers mistakenly think they are lying on their arms in an awkward position cutting off circulation.

I’ve had a few of those symptoms which prompted me to write this article, as well as investigate various options outfitting my home office with ergonomic products. Plus, Workrave has the added bonus of being completely free, whereas a new task chair I’m looking at is far from it.

Let’s take a look at the program.

We can easily install it on an apt-based distribution with this one liner:
apt-get install workrave

After we’ve got it installed, the next step should be to add it into the startup programs, so you’ll always have it running to be reminded to take a break.

Gnome users would point to System > Preferences > Sessions. Then on the startup tab, click the add button. Simply type the following into the Edit Startup Program dialog box:

Name: Workrave
Command: /usr/bin/workrave
Comment: Workrave is a program that assists in the recovery and prevention of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). Just in case you forget.

Then we can start it up by pressing Alt+F2 and type in /usr/bin/workrave and bang on the return key.

Boom there we have it, sitting pretty in the Gnome menu.


There are three timers showing by default, here’s what each of the icons stand for:

Hand: Microbreak
Cup: Rest Break
Door: Self-Suggested Time Limit for the Day

Microbreaks are just that – a very short break (typically 30 seconds or less) that encourages you to let off the keyboard, sit back and relax, and refocus your eyes at an object other than your monitor.

Rest Breaks are intended to be a 5 minute-ish break, where you can hopefully get up and stretch your muscles and if you’re still at the computer, helpful 3D renderings of a woman (who may or may not need a breast reduction to avoid future back trouble) showing you how to stretch your fingers, arms, neck and back muscles, etc.


If you’ve never had any problems, the Workrave website suggests the following schedule: “10 seconds micropause every 10 minutes, and a 5 minute restbreak every hour.” To me, that sounds about right – approximately 6 minutes of break time scheduled throughout the hour.

They’ve added a few nice touches to the program that make the application just about perfect:

1. Skipping or postponing a break is an option if you’re busy, or right click on the timer status bar to suspend the program entirely.

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2. When you stop activity on the computer for about 30 seconds, the program identifies the inactivity and will reset microbreak timers – it assumes you’re not using the computer.

3. Ability to run the program on multiple computers while synchronizing times on each system – if you take a rest break and then come back to sit down at another computer, it doesn’t prompt you for another rest break until the time has run out again.

4. Crazy stats… going back on a calendar you can see how much time you spent moving the mouse, how far you moved it, how many times you clicked, as well as total number of keystrokes – and more!

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5. And finally, if you really want to enforce a “get tough” attitude on yourself, you can set the program to block the entire screen when a break is scheduled to occur.


I really like this program, and if you’ve had any of the symptoms above, I urge you to try it. What’s the worst that can happen?


Don’t answer that just yet, I’m taking a break.