The Ergonomic Challenge

Perhaps you have thought about how great it would be to work from home. No commute, wear whatever you want, sit where you want, in fact you can stay in bed and work if you desire. No more dealing with office cubicles, desks, uncomfortable chairs or that vent blowing air directly on your shoulders. You have your own private bathroom, take breaks when you want, nobody taking your food from the break room fridge and no boss looking over your shoulder. Perfect, you think, sign me up!

Suddenly you got your chance; the Covid 19 pandemic closed your office down and now you have your dream of working from home. It has been a couple weeks already, is your dream turning into a nightmare? How are you feeling physically? Is your neck painful and stiff? Shoulders ache? Back painful? Headaches building up each day? Hands numb and tingling? Tired and sore in general?

What happened? You thought you would feel better working from the comforts of home. Unfortunately a better work environment is not as simple as grabbing a laptop computer and staying home. The issues of body mechanics and work ergonomics don’t disappear once you leave the office. In fact, they can become more apparent once you leave an environment designed for the activity of work.

At the office you have a desk and chair that were designed for the task at hand. The work station was built with your work in mind. The tools (phone, keyboard, mouse, printer, stapler, etc.) you need are there and are designed for your work.

At home you take a laptop, set it on the kitchen table and “go to work”. Later you shift to the couch, put the computer on the coffee table and lean over it to finish the report. By the end of the work day you are reclining back on the couch with the laptop balanced on your knees. You finish at night lying on your stomach in bed checking e-mails. None of those positions are anything close to an efficient posture. Each of them strains your body excessively and creates pain.

How can you achieve effective body mechanics at home and eliminate unnecessary strain on your joints? The best option is to get the equipment and furniture designed for an office. If you are making working from home a permanent move, investing in a properly designed work station makes sense. Set aside an area for your “home office” and outfit it with the furniture and equipment you need: Desk with keyboard tray. Laptop docking station. Full size keyboard and mouse. Monitor (or multiple monitors) large enough to see your work without squinting or leaning forward. Task chair that fits your body height and frame size. It is worth the investment to have a healthy and ergonomically efficient station.

What if working from home is only temporary or occasional? There are still simple things you can do to have a good ergonomic set up and protect your health. Let’s start with the end in mind; what is the ideal posture for sitting and working (we will start from the ground and progress up to the head):

  • Feet should be able to rest flat on the ground.
  • Knees should bent between 90 to 100 degrees.
  • Hips should also be at 90 to 100 degrees.
  • Butt is pushed all the way to the back of the seat.
  • Low back and mid back has support from the seat.
  • Elbows are at your side, not reaching out.
  • Elbows are bent 90 to 100 degrees.
  • Wrists/hands are in straight alignment with forearms.
  • Shoulders are back (not rolled/hunched forward).
  • Head is balanced over neck and shoulders.
  • Looking straight ahead not tilted down.

Bet your work posture looks nothing like that especially when your computer is a laptop. And there is no way to achieve even a few of those points working in bed or on the couch. So as tempting as it may be to lounge in bed or the couch to work, don’t; you will surely end up hurting and with headaches.

Here is what to do: Pick a good chair like a kitchen or dining room chair. Sit down with your butt all the way to the back. If your feet don’t reach the ground, make a foot rest using a short box, a ream of paper or something else about that size. If sitting deep in the seat has your knees touching the edge of the chair, put a pillow or cushion behind you to give support. If your low back needs more support, take a towel and roll it up to put it in the curve of your low back.

Sit at a standard height table (kitchen, dining room) and place your lap top on the table. Now here is the challenge: It is NOT possible to achieve ideal seated posture working at a lap top. Either the keyboard will be at a good height and the monitor much too low, or the monitor at the correct height and the keyboard way too high. The BEST solution is to get a full size keyboard and a mouse (go wireless for best set up but even standard wired ones will do the trick), place the laptop up at the best height for you to see the monitor and set the keyboard in your lap. In this position your elbows will be at your side, your shoulders relaxed and your wrists/hands in alignment. Plus a full size keyboard allows you to keep your chest open; those tiny laptop keyboards not only don’t have all the nice functions but force you to pinch your shoulders and elbows inward causing tension in the chest and shoulders.

Lastly is the monitor, make sure the monitor is high enough that your head is lifted up and eyes straight ahead. If needed put a book or two beneath the laptop to lift it higher. Now place the laptop at a distance that you can clearly and easily see all the print on the screen. Usually this is about arm’s length.

This sounds “involved” but it really is not. Take it step by step from the floor up and it will come together. It is pretty simple to demonstrate, so when you come to the office, ask us and we will show you.

Couple of other quick tips:

  • Take mini breaks from your work and stand up for one minute every half hour. Focus on a point twenty feet away for twenty seconds, then focus in close for twenty seconds and end with looking at a far point for the last twenty seconds.
  • Set a start and finish time for your work day and try to stick to it; don’t let your work bleed into your family and personal time.
  • Make a dedicated place for your work away from your personal space if possible. The dining room or kitchen work for people without a spare room. This lets you separate from work when you are “off the clock”. It is another reason NOT to work in your bed or on your couch. Those are places for you to rest and relax. You don’t want to see your work when you are trying to get some relaxation.

In summary: Get a full size keyboard and mouse. Use a proper chair like a kitchen chair if you don’t have an office chair. Sit at a standard height table. Sit deep in the seat. Support your back. Put the keyboard in your lap. Place the laptop up on the table (or lifted higher if necessary).

Try it out and see how you feel working with this more ergonomically efficient posture versus your slouched and hunched positions on the couch or in bed.