When Covid struck and businesses transitioned employees to work remotely, many hoped it would be a short-lived situation. The small desk set up in the family room with the kitchen table chair may have passed muster initially. Now, more than three months later, some businesses have accepted the fact that their employees may be home for a while.
Spending time now to properly assess your set up can reduce the risk of developing long term health problems. Common conditions that come from placing undue stress and strain on your body when poor ergonomics are involved include lower back pain, sciatica, neck pain, headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, among others.
Here are five things to consider when setting up an ergonomically friendly workspace at home to not only promote good health, but also maximum productivity and efficiency.
1. Choose a dedicated workspace
The ideal workspace offers privacy, appropriate lighting and is convenient to necessary power sources. But, you don't need to have the perfect space to set up a home office to increase your productivity.
One of the most important things you can do when setting up your workspace is to create a delineation between your work and personal life. If you can, find a space that is used specifically for work, away from your personal space. This will allow you to leave work behind at the end of the day. If that isn’t possible, put away your work things until the next day so that space can be used after “business hours.”
2. Establish a set protocol for “coming and going from the office”
Creating some structure to your workday helps with productivity and will enable you to separate work from leisure, since these days we are finding ourselves spending a lot of time at home. It helps to establish set working hours and a routine for starting your day that's similar to getting ready to go into the office. Shutting down your computer at a set time every day can also give you that sense of closure to the workday that’s important for your personal mental health. Or perhaps you send a message to your colleagues or set a status to let your team know that you’re signing off for the evening.
3. Keep in mind the importance of ergonomics
Proper ergonomics is critical to creating a productive and healthy workspace. Establishing a good working position involves employing very specific ergonomic principles as it relates to setting up your workspace with a desk, chair, monitor, keyboard and mouse.
OSHA suggests that you consider the following to maintain a neutral body posture while working at a computer workstation:
- Hands, wrists, and forearms are straight and roughly parallel to the floor.
- Head is level, forward facing, and aligned with the torso.
- Shoulders are relaxed and upper arms hang normally at the side of the body.
- Elbows stay in close to the body and are bent between 90 and 120 degrees.
- Feet are square on the floor or a footrest if needed
- Back is fully supported with appropriate lumbar support when sitting vertical or leaning back slightly.
- Thighs and hips are supported and generally parallel to the floor.
- Knees are about the same height as the hips with the feet slightly forward.
A desktop computer with a monitor is ideal. While laptops and tablets are convenient, they force you to look down at the screen while working, which can place stress on the neck. If you are using a laptop computer, consider a separate monitor or two, and a freestanding keyboard.
- Align the monitor at your eye height and about 20-40 inches away from the face – 20 inches for smaller laptop size screens and further away as monitor size increases.
- Adjust the height of the monitor so that when you look at the middle of the screen, your eyes look down slightly. And tilt the monitor(s) to reduce glare as needed.
- Place dual monitors close together and at the same height to avoid swiveling the head between monitors.
- If monitor isn’t adjustable, a stand, even books can be used to ensure monitor is at proper height and alignment.
Your desk should fit your knees, feet, and thighs comfortably underneath.
- If it’s too short, use risers to lift it up.
- While the optimum height may depend on your own height, in general your desk should be between 25 and 30 inches tall.
- Desk height for typing/keyboarding is lower than one may think. A keyboard tray can be ideal. The goal is to have your elbows greater than 90 degrees to keep wrists in a neutral position.
- You want to avoid contact stress where your elbows and forearms are resting on a hard surface.
- Adjust the chair or seat height so that the thighs are approximately parallel to the floor with the feet resting flat on the floor or on a footrest.
- The back of your knees should not touch the front of the seat cushion (approximately 2-3” in between)
- Adjust the seat back so that the lower back (lumbar area) plus mid-back are well-supported.
Keyboard and mouse placement
- Your keyboard and mouse should be at elbow height when you are seated and not too close to you. Elbows should sit naturally by your sides.
- Keep your wrists straight and your upper arms close to your body. A wrist rest can help with keyboard placement.
- The most ergonomic keyboards are either flat or tilt down. Keyboards that tilt up force wrists to uncomfortably bend up.
- Keep the mouse close to the keyboard and within easy reach by your dominant hand, in front of, and next to the keyboard.
The goal is to minimize glare that can cause eye fatigue or strain.
- If possible, place your monitor perpendicular to a window. You don’t want to face the window or have it behind you. If window light is an issue, shades or other coverings can prevent direct light on the monitor.
- A laptop screen can be adjusted or tilted to minimize glare.
- Minimize overhead lights and instead use table lamps for task lighting. A gooseneck style lamp works well.
4. Sit or Stand?
Much has been reported regarding the benefits of standing at your workspace vs. sitting. Many have begun to use sit-to-stand workstations in offices and find it beneficial for reducing stress and strain on the lower back and neck. The jury is still out on what is best, however an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that experts seem to agree a combination of sitting and standing is optimal for musculoskeletal health.
To that end, you may consider exploring opportunities to change things up at your home office. Choose an adjustable desktop that allows you to easily change your workstation from sitting to standing height or a standing desk. Or create your own set up. Place your desk on wooden blocks or books to raise the desk, or use a box on top of your desk to raise your computer and monitor. A laptop would be most ideal in that situation. The same ergonomic rules described above for a sitting desk apply to a standing arrangement.
5. More healthy best practices
- Take regular breaks. Either get up and move or just stretch in your seat. Breathing exercises can help.
- Maintain a cool, comfortable temperature for your workspace.
- Keep a water bottle filled at your desk and stay hydrated throughout the day. Getting up to refill will also give you one more chance to move.
- Take breaks from your monitor. Even if it’s intentionally taking your eyes off the monitor and looking away for a few minutes at a time.
No matter whether you’re working remotely from home or from your office workspace, taking into consideration all of these ergonomic best practices is important. It will enable you to stay well during what has been and continues to be an overwhelming time for many.