Working from home? How to make your makeshift office more ergonomic

Physical distancing measures in force across the country have led many companies to implement new work-from-home rules.

For many employees working from home for the first time, creating a workspace that is not only productive but comfortable can be a challenge.

Veronique Goyette is a certified ergonomist and project manager at Entrac, a Canadian consulting service specializing in workplace ergonomics.

She points to the importance of keeping a workspace that is as healthy as it is efficient.

“People need to take time to adjust their workstation right now because it's mainly in the long run that problems are going to occur,” she told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Wednesday. “It's been two months now that we’ve been working from home – at Entrac, we are already having a lot of calls from people who are [experiencing] pain and difficulties working and being comfortable at home.”

Goyette explained that without the right work setup at home, employees will not only experience discomfort, but they can also develop musculoskeletal disorders as time goes on, especially in relation to body parts such as the neck, wrist, shoulders and back.

Sapna Sriram, a chiropractor based in Toronto, is already seeing the negative impact of an uncomfortable workspace on the health of her clients.

“Similarly to our economics at the office, the same injuries apply to you at home and if anything, are amplified,” she told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday via telephone. “I’m seeing a lot of lower back cases and neck cases right now just because people don't have the right setup at home.”

It’s for these reasons that both experts suggest optimizing your at-home work setup. Here are some of their key recommendations for how to work from home ergonomically:

SETTING UP YOUR WORKSPACE

Computer

While most people are likely using a laptop while working from home, Goyette admits it is not the most ergonomic device.

“The main problem with laptops is the fact that the screen is attached to the keyboard,” she explained. “They are great for mobility because it’s easy to work from wherever, but the problem is that it leads to awkward posture when using it.”

As a result, laptops are not recommended for use during long work days, she says, mainly due to the stress they can cause on the neck and shoulders. The concentration of the keyboard and touchpad to one small device makes you more likely to hunch your shoulders and bend your neck downwards while using it. This adds pressure to the body, especially the back.

“It’s going to bring a lot of fatigue” said Goyette. “When you bend your neck forward…it takes a lot of muscle strength to maintain the position, which causes compression in the vertebrae.”

The best solution is to use auxiliary equipment, says Sriram – things like an external keyboard, mouse, monitor or headphones. These will help make the experience of working on a computer much more comfortable, she says.

They will also allow you to raise the laptop screen to eye level, which will help prevent bending of the neck. Sriram recommends placing the screen so that your forehead lines up with the top of the monitor.

“That tilt in your neck is significant because it adds sometimes up to 60 pounds of body weight on your neck,” she said. “It’s very important that you minimize that neck tilt, and this can instantly be corrected just by elevating your monitor.”

She recommends placing the device on top of a few books or boxes and using it with an external keyboard and mouse. This will reduce a significant amount of pain and soreness in the neck by keeping the head straight.

If you don’t have access to an external keyboard or mouse, Goyette advises keeping the laptop at a distance so that your wrists and forearms are supported by the table. This will not only help minimize the tilt in your neck, but also reduces some of the strain placed on the eyes.

Avoid eye strain caused by sitting too close to the screen

Due to an often smaller screen, people also typically place laptops closer to their face than they should, says Goyette. This creates a lot of tension in the eyes.

“When you are looking at an object that is close to your face, the eyes work in convergence,” she explained. “This means that the muscles in the eyes are working really hard to maintain this position and keep the focus, which brings a lot of fatigue, dryness and can also lead to headaches.”

To prevent this, Sriram recommends keeping your computer screen about an arm’s length away from you.

“It’s as simple as just putting your arm out in front of you,” she explained. “When your arm is fully extended…your fingers should just touch the monitor.”

Goyette also suggests practicing the 20-20-20 rule to prevent eye strain and muscle fatigue – every 20 minutes, look away from your screen at an object that’s about 20 feet – or six metres – away from you for 20 seconds.

“It will give a short break to your eye” she said. “It relaxes the muscles in the eyes completely because…the eyes will be looking straight in front, so the muscles won’t have to pull them in convergence.”

Chair

For most people, there is a natural tendency to slouch forward when sitting for an extended period of time, Goyette says. This can place a great amount of strain on the back, specifically the lumbar region of the spine, otherwise known as the lower back.

“The main problem we see [while working from home] is the lack of lumbar support,” Goyette says.

She explains that sitting causes the hips to shift in position. When this happens, the natural curve found in the lower back area becomes flattened.

“In this position, the pressure on the vertebrae is not equal, so it puts a lot of strain on the muscles, tendons and vertebral discs,” Goyette said.

As a result, muscles in the lower back have to work harder to maintain good posture. Over time, this can lead to a significant amount of back pain.

Ensure the lower back has proper support

If possible, Sriram recommends investing in an adjustable chair that offers lumbar support, preferably one that is firm and not too plush.

If this isn’t possible, and you’re resorting to a kitchen chair, for example, you can also support your lower back by using household objects, such as a towel, cushion, or rolled-up shirt. Placing these where the natural curve is towards the bottom of your back is another way of providing support and maintaining the neutral position of the spine, explained Goyette.

“When we’re sitting, we want to keep the lumbar hollow and the natural curves of the spine [intact],” she said. “That’s why the lumbar support on the chair is so important, because it helps correct this position while we are sitting.”

Keep the elbow at a right angle to avoid unwanted pressure

It is also important to be mindful of the position of your elbow, explained Sriram. Improper posture of the elbow and wrists can lead to a number of injuries, she says.

“Carpal tunnel [syndrome], tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow – these are all common injuries that are not just sports related,” she said. “Basically, they’re all fancy words for injuries that are developed by compressing a nerve.”

Placing unwanted pressure on joints like the wrist or elbow over long periods of time can irritate the nerves and cause pain, explained Sriram. Keeping your elbow at a right angle and directly under the shoulder will help prevent this.

“Your elbow should be bent at a perfect 90-degree angle without compromising your shoulder position or your wrist position,” said Sriram.

The goal is to maintain this angle while making sure your shoulders aren’t shrugging or slouching. Your forearm should be parallel to the ground while your wrists remain in a neutral position without extending too far up or flexing too far down.

It is also advised to keep your chair at a height that allows your thighs to run parallel to the floor while keeping your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.

Desk

In terms of finding the right desk, you’ll want to use a flat and solid surface that gives you enough space to place your devices, Goyette says. For those who don’t have a desk or work table, using a kitchen table is the next best option.

Relieve tension in the wrist and forearm by providing support

The height of your desk is especially important to consider, says Goyette. You want to make sure enough support is being given to the wrists and forearms in order to avoid inflicting any mechanical pressure.

“When you have soft tissue, like muscles [and] tendons…on a hard or sharp surface…it reduces blood flow and causes pressure on the nerves that can also bring pain,” she said. “This can happen when your wrist is against the edge of your table or laptop.”

As a result, you want to make sure your desk is at a height where you can comfortably place your wrists and forearms on it while maintaining that 90-degree elbow angle. The goal is for your elbow to match the height of the table.

In order to achieve this, Sriram recommends using a pillow or cushion to elevate yourself, if necessary.

Working while standing is also an option

Seeing as most work-from-home setups are not likely perfect, Goyette also suggests standing while working, at least for a short period of time during the day.

“We don’t recommend people spend four hours straight sitting in front of the computer,” she said.

For standing, Goyette recommends the use of a countertop, although the same conventions for working while sitting also apply, meaning that if the laptop is too low, you’ll want to raise it so that the keyboard is level with your elbow and you’re maintaining that 90-degree angle.

“If you're tall, the problem is going to be that the laptop is too low so…your neck is going to be bent forward [and] you’re going to have a lot of pressure in the wrist,” she said. “That's why we recommend using anything to raise the laptop to make sure it’s level with the elbow.”

GENERAL TIPS

Take a break every now and then

Goyette insists that being seated for several hours at a time during a long work day is not ideal.

“We’re not meant to be sitting all the time, no matter how good we set up our environment to work," she said. "We need to get up."

She recommends getting out of your chair to stretch or move around once or twice each hour. This, she says, will help the spine return to its neutral posture and help promote blood flow.

Use shortcuts to increase productivity

Opt to use shortcuts on your keyboard instead of the mouse, and try to create file shortcuts to documents you use more often. You can also increase the speed of your mouse to reduce movement in the shoulders and elbows.

Consider a footrest

As a way to increase comfort, Sriram recommends using a footrest.

If you don’t already have one at home, she suggests stacking a few boxes or flipping an old recycling bin upside down to make your own. Place a sheet or pillow on top for added comfort.

“For a lot of people, even just putting one foot on a stool … takes a bit of loading off your back and it helps bring that 90-degree angle back to your hips for people who can’t achieve that with certain chairs that they’re using at home.”

Infographic by Mahima Singh

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