Working from home has now become an entrenched part of life, yet many of us may still be lacking a clear understanding of how to make sure our home-office ergonomics are sound. Ergonomics exist to ensure the best physical and mental outcomes in the workplace and, as safety and ergonomics expert Ted Dohrmann of Dohrmann Consulting points out, after a couple of years of logging in from home, many people haven’t made changes from their temporary setup to one that better meets their needs.
So, as some level of hybrid work looks set to be the norm for many industries, it’s important to do an ergonomic assessment of your home office – whether that’s your dining table or a dedicated room – and fix what’s going wrong.
Any home office worker’s gear will be much the same: desk, chair, computer, screen, keyboard, mouse. It’s the way they’re used that often differs. “One misconception is that the type of work people do at computers is all the same,” says Dohrmann. “Actually, it varies a lot. How do you use that computer? How do you interact with the keyboard? A stockbroker’s work might involve a lot of looking at a screen; a journalist’s work will involve a lot of typing at the keyboard and speaking on the phone.” From there, Dohrmann says, you can decide what you need. A day-trader may need an extra screen; a journalist may need to reposition the keyboard so they don’t have to reach too far to type.
The most important piece of the home-office puzzle, he says, is your chair. “It’s worth investing in a decent ergonomic chair. That means one that is height adjustable and has decent lumbar support, which is that backrest that provides support to your lower back.” Features like a backrest tilt and backrest height adjustment will also help better position the backrest to support the lower back.
If you’re stuck with a regular non-adjustable chair, such as a dining room chair, try to pick one that’s not too low. “If you’re really low and you’re trying to type, you’re going to get sore shoulders,” says Dohrmann. “Get yourself up as high as possible with not much gap between your thighs and the underside of the table.” And, in this case, consider adding ergonomic back support or a cushion so you can sit more comfortably.
Jordan Lees, director and lead consultant at The Ergonomic Physio, says even workers with high-quality gear still get it wrong. “People who work from home more regularly often have very nice office equipment – like a huge mahogany desk. It looks amazing and is of a high quality, but it’s just not suitable from an ergonomic perspective because it’s very difficult to set someone up in the right position if their desk is 10 centimetres too high for them.”
Make sure you’re investing in gear that doesn’t just look good – it should have all the features you need to be comfortable throughout your entire workday.
Placement of your body and equipment will make all the difference to comfort levels throughout the day. “Ask yourself, am I sitting comfortably?” says Dohrmann. “Is my head in an upright posture and not looking down to see the screen for long periods? Am I able to reach my keyboard and mouse comfortably?” Here’s what to look out for to check you’re on the right track:
Your Office Chair
Make sure the height of your chair allows your shoulders to be relaxed, not slumped.
Adjust the backrest so it supports the curve of your back.
Adjust the seat pan so it’s flat or sloping slightly downwards to the front of the chair; this will reduce pressure under your thighs and encourage a comfortable, open position of the hips.
If you feel pressure under your thighs, add a footrest.
Make sure your hips are flexed between 90 and 110 degrees when you’re seated.
Ensure your feet are flat on the ground; if not, use a footrest.
Your Work Desk
Your forearms should rest flat on the desk when your arms are at 90 degrees.
If the desk is a little too high, put your chair up as high as it will go – if it’s not adjustable, add some cushions – and add a footrest to ensure you’re not putting any undue pressure on the lower back.
Make sure there’s enough surface space that everything you need is within arm’s reach.
Remove any obstructions from under the desk, such as drawers that get in the way of your legs.
Your Home Tech
Your computer screen and keyboard should be directly in front of you.
Place the keyboard close to the front of the desk so you’re not stretching to reach it.
Your eye line should fall somewhere between the middle third and the top third of the screen.
The screen shouldn’t be more than an arm’s length away from you to avoid eye strain.
If you use dual screens, make sure they’re side-by-side so you’re not constantly swivelling your head.
Here’s the truth: laptops aren’t designed for full-time work. They’re handy little workstations for business trips (remember those?), working on the commute and the odd email but problems may arise when they become your eight-hours-a-day screen. If you have to make do with one, set your laptop to an appropriate height using a laptop stand, and add an external keyboard and mouse. “It’s an inexpensive addition but it makes a huge difference to the ergonomics of your space,” says Lees.
There’s no set criteria for how long we should sit or stand at our desks, says Lees, because our bodies are all different. “The best way to use a sit-stand desk is to switch between the two regularly,” he explains. “I suggest people find out what their sitting threshold is – how long they can sit for before they start to become uncomfortable and need to move. Say it was two hours, which seems to be the average, cut it off at 75 per cent. So after an hour and a half, stand up. Then you’re preventing yourself from accumulating these little niggles that might develop into pain. Do the same thing for standing – once you’re at 75 per cent of that, sit down again.”
And take regular breaks away from your desk: a few minutes to make yourself a cup of tea, go to the bathroom or wander around aimlessly regularly is not shirking; it’s the best way to stay healthy and minimise injuries to your back and shoulders. “Build it as a habit into your day – take a call, stretch, look out the window,” says Dohrmann. “A catchphrase we’ve been saying is, ‘When you finish your Zoom, leave the room!’ ”
In worst-case scenarios, bad ergonomics can result in injury, such as neck and back pain or wrist strains – but there are plenty of warning signs to look for before it comes to that. “If it gets to the point of headache and back pain, you’ve waited too long,” says Lees. “Sitting is so easy that if it’s generating pain, then something’s going wrong. There will always be steps before that point of injury: irritation, restlessness, discomfort, pain. If you start to feel irritable or restless or tight, that’s when you should be moving because otherwise it will continue to accumulate. Listen to your body.”
Raise your computer monitor until your head is straight-on when you’re looking at it. “If you get the monitor to the correct height, it will encourage you to sit back into the chair,” says Lees
“Have the chair leaning back slightly at around a three- or five-degree recline as opposed to completely vertical. If you’re leaning back, it’s physically impossible to lean forward as well,” he says.
Reset your posture by getting up every half an hour – set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself.
Counteract rounding of the shoulders with a simple stretch. “Place one arm at 90 degrees from your body on a door frame and twist your body until you feel a nice stretching of your chest,” advises Lees.
Another stretch Lees advises is shoulder blade retractions. “They’ll wake up those muscles that are getting lazy from sitting and prevent slumping,”
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