Working from Home without Hurting Your Body

May 18, 2020

Many office workers are accustomed to adjustable height tables, ergonomic chairs, and external keyboards, monitors and computer mice. Those working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, may find themselves hunched over the kitchen table, using a small laptop keyboard and straining to see tiny computer screens.

Ergonomics is the study of people’s efficiency and health in the workplace. In the context of office work, it means ensuring employees are seated in comfortable positions and using their equipment in optimal ways to reduce bodily harm. Since ergonomic risk factors’ impact is predicated on the duration of exposure, and we don’t know how long it will be before many of us return to a traditional office environment, it’s important to set up your home work area in a way that will make you most comfortable.

Sitting for long stretches without considering posture can lead to musculoskeletal pain, particularly in the back, elbows, wrist, neck, shoulders and hands. Lower extremities can also suffer. When we’re at the gym, our muscles contract and relax, allowing blood to flow freely through your bodies, providing our bodies with nutrients while eliminating waste. When we’re sitting at a desk holding our posture, we’re reducing our blood flow; when waste is stored and our tissues do not get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, we feel the pain.

Here are ways to make your workspace work for you:

  • Figure out a place dedicated to your work. If it’s a dedicated room, such as a home office, that’s great! If it can’t be a room, make it a table, a desk or a specific geographical area where you spend your work time. Avoid your bedroom as much as possible. You need to keep this area sacred for rest and intimacy; otherwise, work will follow you in your bed. Working at the kitchen table or counter may very well create awareness, discomfort or even pain in tendons and muscles you may not have known existed. If you have a desk with a keyboard tray or a drawer, use it. For anybody shorter than 6’3”, your typical 28.5”-30” high worksurface is too high. 
     
  • Make sure your feet are thoroughly supported on the floor or a hard, stable surface, with your hips and knees at the same height. That means your thighs are parallel to the floor. If your chair is adjustable, raise or lower the seat to ensure you are seated properly. If your chair is not, put a few blankets on the seat to raise your body, with a box or a few reams of paper or books under your feet to provide support. If you’re considering investing in a new chair, look for one with adjustable arm rests and an adjustable seat pan, particularly if you are shorter than approximately 5’3 or taller than 5’9. 
     
  • Maintain 2 inches of clearance between the back of your knees and the front edge of the seat to allow for circulation. Adjust lumbar support to comfortably contour the small of your back. Raise or lower armrests to your rested elbow height. Your shoulders should be relaxed. 
     
  • Unlock your backrest and adjust the recline tension at varying degrees throughout the day. 
     
  • Lean back and relax in your chair to allow the backrest to support your upper body. 
     
  • Your elbows should rest on the side of your trunk. Bend your elbows at around 90 degrees. Where your hands are should be where your keyboard and mouse are. An adjustable keyboard tray or keyboard drawer is the best way to achieve this posture. If you don’t have one but have a lap pad, use it. You might also have a long and thin box available from one of the deliveries you most likely recently received. While seated optimally, put it on your knees and place your keyboard and mouse on top. An ironing board works well too. Make sure to position your legs under the ironing board so that you don’t have to bend forward to reach your input devices.

Now that you’re sitting properly, consider how to adjust equipment:

  • Consider investing in an external keyboard and external mouse. Try to avoid working on your laptop keyboard and trackpad. It is hard to position our keyboard and mouse on a regular kitchen table or even a desk in the positions described above if you do not have an adjustable keyboard tray. Position your mouse close to the keyboard to prevent reaching and straining your arm and back muscles. Keep your wrists straight while typing. Rest your palm – not your wrists – on a palm support if you have one. 
     
  • Position the monitor so that the top line of text is slightly below eye level. Tilt the monitor so your line of sight is perpendicular to the monitor. Align the monitor and spacebar with the midline of your body. 
     
  • Keep your work area well lighted with lighting directed toward the side or behind your line of vision, not in front or above it.

Move Around and Rest

In office ergonomics, we say: “The next posture is the best posture”. As such, move around. If you have a favorite couch or armchair or rocking chair, invest in a lap pad so you can put your laptop on it for an hour at a time, change the scenery and enjoy the moment. If you use an external mouse, you could actually enjoy a couch, armchair or rocking chair for more than one hour without putting your soft tissues at risk too much!

Don’t forget to rest. Take two to five minutes each half-hour to move to allow your body to recover from periods of prolonged static contraction and repetitive stress. Leave your workstation regularly. Check in with other members of your household, step outside for a breath of fresh air, grab a healthy snack or replenish your glass of water. If you can, go to the restroom one flight above or below from where your “office” is.

Remember, paying attention to your body is always important, especially now. If you make adjustments to your workspace and still feel pain, give your doctor or company’s ergonomics specialist a call for further help.

 
Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group, P.C. (Permanente) is our network of over 1,500 physicians who practice in our medical centers located in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia.
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