Workrave Fights Repetitive Strain Injuries
By 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 acquire a binary executable for Microsoft Windows or the source code from the download page of the Workrave website.
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 following command:
workrave. Workrave will start 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.
Workrave starts by displaying three empty progress meters. The empty part of the meters represents the time remaining until the next break, and every second you use the keyboard or mouse will cause Workrave to fill part of the empty space. The top meter will fill quickest and the bottom meter slowest because the top meter represents the time left until the most frequent break, the micro-break, and the bottom meter represents the most infrequent break, the daily limit.
If 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 will 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: it includes a progress meter of its own bound to a 30-second countdown timer. When the timer reaches zero, the prelude disappears. But the prelude will return in two minutes to nag you again, and it will continue 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 will replace the prelude. Which of the three break windows you see will depend on which of the three progress meters you filled.
You’ll first encounter the twenty-second long micro-break. (All times in this section are examples; I’ll discuss changing timings later.) Workrave tells you to take a micro-break after five minutes of activity, and during a micro-break you should relax all of the muscles in your hands, arms, shoulders, and back; these twenty seconds of relaxation can help undo the damage of holding yourself in the same tense typing position all day. You should also re-focus your eyes on something besides 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.
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 other button, skip, 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 forty minutes of activity, you’ll next encounter the eight-minute long 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 someone enter your user password before letting anyone access your desktop session.
After six hours of activity, you’ll last encounter the daily limit break. The daily limit break does not 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 shutdown the computer.
Several features set Workrave apart from other free software RSI treatment and prevention software. No feature is more obvious than Ms. Workrave.
Ms. Workrave, a computer-generated model, demonstrates several stretching exercises during rest breaks. The demonstrations typically feature several pictures of Ms. Workrave posing with action arrows emphasizing the way to stretch and text explaining exactly what to do. Two other exercises, both eye focusing exercises, don’t feature Ms. Workrave. You can perform any of the exercises in a cubicle.
One version of Workrave, customized by a commercial company under the the terms of the GNU GPL, features photographs of an exercise actor instead of Ms. Workrave.
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 ten micro-breaks, 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, and Mouse (KVM) switch to alternate between the two computers while Workrave runs in network mode. Then, no matter which computer you’re using, Workrave will tell you to take a micro-break 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 most effectively enforce the daily limit.
You will probably need to configure Workrave: if you suffer from sever RSI, the default settings include too few breaks for too little time; if you suffer from mild RSI, the default settings include too many breaks for too much time. You can also tweak Workrave’s user interface or setup 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-break, 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 afterwords. You will find the best settings through trial-and-error, but your doctor or therapist might suggest good initial settings.
In the second category of settings, you adjust Workrave’s user interface. You can enable audio cues that alert you 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 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 sub-menu’s three options: normal, quiet, and suspend. This article has explained how the normal mode works. In quiet mode, Workrave will continue to fill its progress meters, but it will never nag you or activate 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 periodically break. 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, but now I can’t concentrate as effectively: Workrave keeps asking me if I want to break, interrupting my work.
David A. Harding began using Linux in 2001 and quickly became a Linux Professional Institute certified system administrator. His articles have appeared in over a dozen publications and he has given over 50 presentations about Linux—including two Software Freedom Day keynotes. Dave always loves to hear from readers at email@example.com.
To the extent possible under law, David A. Harding has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to this article. This work is published from the United States.