Physical 

Ergonomics of Working From Home

December 30, 2020 6 min read

Ergonomic office chairs in an empty office space

As we climb the peak of Covid-19, more and more companies are encouraging their employees to work from home. 

If you don’t have a designated office space at home, you’ve likely found yourself hunched over your laptop, trading in your office chair for a bed or sofa, or spending the day perched on hard dining chairs. 

Over time, these awkward positions can lead to what’s known as “microtraumas,” or small strains we put on our joints and muscles. These can eventually lead to long-term ailments like muscular and skeletal disorders, inflamed tendons, carpal tunnel syndrome, and back and shoulder injuries.

An ergonomic setup doesn’t have to be complicated. This article shares a few simple ergonomic tips that will go a long way in ensuring this work-from-home phase doesn’t leave you with aches, pains, and poor posture. 

An ergonomic home office setup

Invest in an ergonomic chair

Dining chairs can work as makeshift office chairs for a while, but they can hamper blood circulation if they have a hard surface. Similarly, you might end up with a sore back if your chair does not support the inward curve of your lower back. 

One of the best remedies is to invest in an ergonomic chair if you can afford it (you might even be able to score one secondhand!).Ergonomic chairs come with adjustable features that save you from lower back and neck discomfort. Here are a few things to keep in mind when investing in an ergonomic chair:

  • Lower back (lumbar) support
  • Synchro-tilt functionality, which allows you to adjust the angle of the backrest and seat
  • Adjustability for chair tension, seat height, and armrest position

Separate the keyboard from the monitor

Ensure that your monitor is either at eye level or slightly below. This helps reduce strain on your eyes and neck. Then, adjust your keyboard so that when you type, your elbow angle is 90 degrees. This provides forearm support and keeps your wrists in a neutral posture

Adjust your posture

The new normal has seen dining tables turn into makeshift office spaces. While your dining table might be the same height as an office table, dining chairs are usually much lower than office chairs. They’re also not usually equipped with a height-adjusting feature. What’s more, your forearms bear the stress of resting against the hard dining table surface. 

You can take the pressure off of your forearms by taking a small towel and doubling it up underneath them. You can also provide comfortable lumbar support by placing a small cushion or pillow behind you at your waist. Then, press your back against the chair and rest your arms at 90-degree angles. 

A great way to check whether or not you have your chair set up correctly is sitting comfortably and placing your hands on your lap. You want the tabletop in line with your elbows. 

Make sure your feet are firmly placed on the ground while sitting. If your feet are not supported, more stress will be placed on your lower back and thighs. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor once you’re seated. If you can’t reach the ground, use the support ofa step-stool or block

If your work surface is too high, it can strain your shoulders. This can result in increased tension and discomfort in your shoulders and upper back. Prop yourself up on some cushions or towels to bring you up to the level of your work surface. If this causes your feet to dangle, use foot support. 

If your work surface is too low, it can cause you to slouch or hunch over to reach your laptop while typing. In this case, it’s best to rest your laptop on a stack of books, boxes, or any object to elevate the screen. 

Modify your body ergonomics

If you wear eyeglasses, make sure they fit correctly to avoid having to tilt your head or strain your eyes. Sit tall at your workstation, aligning your shoulders, hips, and ears. Finally, take frequent breaks to give your wrists some rest. 

Move every part of your body

With the kitchen, laundry room, study, bedroom, and living room just a few steps away, it’s easy to slip into a sedentary lifestyle when working from home. One way to overcome this is by engaging in Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) with activities like gardening, household chores, and moving around every 30 minutes

Ensure that you’re getting up from your workstation every 30-60 minutes to stretch and walk around. One easy way to do this is to walk around while taking a phone call. Alternatively, see if you can place your laptop on the kitchen counter to create a standing workstation for short periods.

Reduce eye strain

Ergonomics play a role in eye health as well. If your workstation is directly across from open windows, the sunlight that falls on your screen can cause you to squint, resulting in eye strain. You can combat this by positioning yourself and your laptop perpendicular to the window or simply drawing the blinds. Don’t just turn the laptop screen, as this will make you twist your neck, which could lead to neck pain

Of course, your eyes need relief from staring into a monitor for hours at a time too. Follow the 20-20-20 rule to ensure that you move your eyes regularly. Every 20 minutes, take your eyes off your screen and focus on something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain and fatigue.

Take care of your mental health 

The isolation of working from home can spark irritation, anxiety, mood swings, and depression. Make it a point to keep in touch with your colleagues and speak over the phone when possible. Don’t miss out on your daily dose of sunshine and fresh air. When you feel low, make sure you speak to someone about it, or take up an activity that keeps your mind engaged. 

Take regular breaks from work, to make yourself a nice lunch or to relax with a hot cup of tea. Also, try to not work in your pajamas all day, no matter how tempting it can be. Setting clear personal and professional boundaries can help you unwind without feeling stressed or guilty about it later.

Man working from home at his kitchen table on a laptop

Workstation exercises that you can do at home

Do these exercises every few hours to promote good circulation and to make sure your muscles don’t slip into a state of atrophy for too long. If you don’t have great willpower, or think you’re bound to forget, set hourly alarms that remind you to stand up and move.

Neck and Shoulders

  • Neck rotation: Slowly rotate your neck a few times clockwise, then the same number of times counterclockwise.
  • Shoulder rotation: Shrug and circle your shoulders a few times clockwise, then counterclockwise.
  • Shrug: Slowly raise your shoulders toward your ears and hold for a few seconds, then drop back down. 
  • Shoulder squeeze: Raise your arms horizontally with your elbows bent and palms facing forward. Move your arms back, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Hold for a few seconds, then release. 
  • Stretch up:Sit up straight and raise your head towards the ceiling while facing forward, allowing your neck and shoulders to stretch upwards. Hold for a few seconds before releasing.

Arms

  • Arm relaxation: Let your arms loose and gently shake them for a few seconds.
  • Arm rotation: Stretch your hands to your shoulder level and rotate your arms clockwise a few times. Repeat in a counterclockwise motion.

Hands and Wrists

  • Wrist flex: Stretch your arm out, with your wrist and hand straight, and the palm of your hand facing up. Using your other hand, stretch the fingers of your open palm down towards the floor. Do 5 sets for both hands.

Back and Lower Body

  • Leg raises: Sitting up straight in your chair, lift one leg at a time and lower down slowly with your other foot planted on the ground. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 5 times for each leg.
  • Side stretches: Stand up tall at your desk and raise your arms above your head, interlacing your fingers at the top. With arms raised, lean slowly to the left to stretch your back and side. Repeat on the right side. 

In Summary

Amidst Covid-19, companies around the world have permitted their employees to work from home. While working at home has a lot of merits, especially in a pandemic, it has its fair share of downsides too. One of them is the poor ergonomics that often result from makeshift home offices. 

There are a few things to keep in mind when setting up a workspace at home to avoid undue pressure on your body and posture. Invest in an ergonomic chair if possible. If not, add cushions to your chair for back and leg support. Support your feet so that they’re always placed firmly on the ground or a step-stool, but never left dangling. 

To keep your blood flowing and your muscles active, be sure you move around frequently. Don’t forget your eyes need rest too, which you can get using the 20-20-20 rule. Finally, mental health can take a hit in this isolation, so ensure that you keep in touch with colleagues and friends. 

Following these simple exercises and tips throughout your workday can help you make the most out of your new home office. 

Ramya Satheesh- Contributing writer, Physician’s Choice

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