What’s the remedy to work-from-home pain? Applying ergonomics to your workspace can go a long way towards a healthier body and a more focused mind.
After months of working from home, many work-from-home newbies are looking for relief from backaches, stiff necks and tight shoulders. For many, working from home at the onset of the pandemic initially seemed like it would be a two-week experiment. Now, however, working from home is a long-term change for many. As a result, ergonomic home workspaces are on the minds of more workers than ever.
What is Ergonomics?
Ergonomics is the science that helps prevent musculoskeletal disorders caused by an improper fit between the ways work is performed, tools used and the work environment itself. Actually, we probably take ergonomics for granted in our day to day life; have you ever?:
- Bent your knees when you picked up a heavy box?
- Received a fitness tracker alert telling you to get up and move to avoid muscle fatigue?
- Looked in your car’s rear view mirror to see the traffic that is behind you?
- Used the handle extension on your dust mop to dust the hard to reach areas in your home?
If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you have already benefited from ergonomic features and adaptations.
“Ergonomics is about adjusting your work environment to fit you — instead of the other way around,” says Lisa Harris, an occupational therapist and owner of Healthworks Ergonomics in Austin, Texas.
Working from Home: The New Normal
When pandemic precautions sent scores of workers home, they had to recreate their workspaces overnight with neither time to plan nor the knowledge necessary to create ergonomic working conditions.
So, for months, people have been sinking into couches with laptops, sending emails from backless counter stools and writing reports while propped against a headboard. At first, most people didn’t pay much attention to the way those new work positions made their bodies feel. They just wanted to get their work done.
Over time, however, their necks, backs and shoulders started to reveal the consequences of those choices. Ergonomic workspaces are now more appealing than ever. “Most people don’t get serious about making their workspace ergonomic until they hurt, and the pain becomes unbearable,” says Harris.
For years, Dr. Nicole Lombardo, a physical therapist and owner of GetFitt.ed Ergonomics and Wellness Services in San Jose, Calif., has helped family, friends and patients resolve aches and pains by making small adjustments to their workstations. But now, ergonomic practices are more important than ever, she says. “I am constantly talking to our patients and clients about ergonomics these days, now that a lot of people are working from home,” says Lombardo.
12-Point Ergonomics Checklist
Get started on improving your home office or favorite home workspace with ergonomic practices. Start by assessing your current office layout to see where you can improve posture and stress on your muscles and spine.
Use this checklist to see what, if any, improvements should be made, and then keep reading for tips on how to ergonomically optimize your workspace.
Is Your Home Workspace Ergonomic?
Use this checklist to ensure that you’re set up for success.
Tips for Creating an Ergonomic Home Workspace
You don’t have to wait for your body to rebel in pain. It’s easy to create your own ergonomic workspace at home; here are the most common culprits for work-from-home aches and pains and how to improve them.
Improper Desk or Chair Height
The office desk you purchased for paying bills and scrolling social media probably wasn’t designed with ergonomics in mind. Maybe its drawers bump against your legs, or it lacks adequate desktop space. “Most desks for home use are too high,” says Harris. “In a perfect world, you could have an adjustable desk, but that’s expensive.” It’s easy to adjust your desk chair to the right height, though.
To ensure proper desk height, make sure:
- wrists are straight
- elbows are bent about 80 to 90 degrees
- shoulders are relaxed, hanging freely rather than hunched
- feet are flat on the floor
- hips are slightly higher than or level with your knees
Most of your leg should be supported on the seat with two to three inches of space behind the knee, says Harris. If your chair is too high at the proper desk height, find a footstool to rest your feet on.
When looking for office chair adjustments be sure to identify 5 common features:
- Seat height
- Lumbar support
- Armrest height
- Seat depth
- Backrest recline tension
You can also change up desk habits with a standing desk, a popular option used by many employers. You can purchase a full-sized standing desk or even create your own with a box, books or shelf on top of your regular desk.
“Studies show that standing improves focus, productivity and mood and prevents common injuries associated with sedentary lifestyles and poor posture,” says Chris Carter, founder of StandingDeskKing, a blog devoted to the benefits of standing desks.
Don’t work at your standing desk for long, uninterrupted periods, though. “Alternate standing and sitting so you don’t hold any one position for too long,” says Carter. “Periodically shift your weight from one leg to another or both and occasionally do some stretches or simple exercises.”
It’s easy to get so engrossed in your work that you ignore where your feet are placed, whether your knees are relaxed and how they’re positioned in relation to your hips. Neglecting posture is a recipe for pain, however.
When sitting, your feet should be flat on the ground with about a 90-degree bend in your knees and hips.
When working at a standing desk, your feet should be directly under your hips with knees relaxed and weight evenly distributed between both feet. Whether sitting or standing, make sure your shoulders are stacked over your hips without favoring one hip over the other. Also, your shoulders should be pulled back slightly, ears stacked over your shoulders and chin parallel to the floor.
Hunching Over a Laptop
The great thing about laptops is that they’re compact and portable. However, if the keyboard is at the proper height, it’s likely the screen is not. Improper laptop and keyboard height are notorious for causing shoulder and neck pain and injuries. To prevent those problems, elevate your laptop with a laptop stand or even a stack of books so you can look straight ahead at the screen rather than looking down.
Then use a wireless keyboard so you’re not reaching up. The new keyboard may involve an adjustment period, but “once you get used to it, you won’t want to go back,” says Harris.
Resting the palms on a supportive surface can assist with keyboarding, however, placing pressure on the wrist crease should be avoided.
Position external monitors close enough to the eyes so that you don’t have to lean forward to see small text on the screen. For most people, this distance is about an arm’s length away while the shoulders are touching the chair’s backrest.
Neck-straining Phone Habits
Cell phones are generally not designed to be hands-free. Avoid holding the phone with your shoulder and neck while on a call, since that position is extremely hard on your muscles and spine, says Harris. Instead, use a headset or put the caller on speakerphone to prevent a stiff neck and shoulder or back issues.
Couch and Bed Work Habits
If you work for hours sitting on your overstuffed sofa, the lack of proper support will wreak havoc on your body, says Harris. The couch and bed are high-risk areas when it comes to aches and pains. You don’t have to avoid these favorite working spots altogether, however.
“The body can tolerate these positions for short periods of time, but understand that you’re not working in a good ergonomic position,” says Harris. To avoid stress on your muscles and back, limit couch and bed work to 30 minutes or less, moving to a more ergonomic position such as a desk after standing a few minutes for a post-sofa break.
Sitting for Too Long
Sitting in one position for too long — even in a properly fitted chair — can inhibit blood flow to your entire body, especially your legs. It can cause stiffness in muscles and joints and even cause permanent bodily changes to muscles, bones and connective tissue that predispose you to injury, says Lombardo.
For every hour of computer work:
Take rest breaks:
40 minutes sitting, 15 minutes standing, 5 minutes active break.
Take visual breaks:
20-20-20 rule (every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds)
If you wear a fitness tracker, don’t ignore those alerts to get up and move. The simple action will improve blood flow, burn calories and prevent muscle and joint stiffness.
Ergonomic Doesn’t Mean Costly
Wherever you shop, you may be able to deduct the cost of home office furniture on your taxes. However, it’s prudent to check with your accountant before making any big financial commitments.
If you’re ready to implement ergonomic practices, consider investing in a chair with lumbar support, adjustable arm rests and height adjustment. Shop for a laptop stand and wireless keyboard and a standing desk (or create your own). No need to buy brand new, either. There are second-hand stores have office furniture at reasonable prices.
“I’ve had great luck outfitting my home workstation with high quality used furniture at a big discount by shopping at a used office furniture store, says one reader. “I spent about the same as I would have at a big box store or online, and got better quality. Plus, I’m supporting a small business and recycling, and feel good about both.”
In conclusion, implementing ergonomics into home workspaces can help you — and your body — enjoy all the benefits of working from home. Simple as that.
Remember, if nothing else, it costs zero dollars to stand up a couple times an hour to stretch or walk around. For those with fitness trackers, now is the time to heed those alerts telling you to get up and move. And don’t forget to download the 12-point Ergonomics Checklist above!