Stay at home orders are being lifted, but many companies plan to continue allowing their employees to work remotely. Businesses are finding an increase in staff productivity while others are trying to save money by ending their leases. Some employees miss going into the office while others are enjoying not having a commute, no dress code, and access to all the yummy snacks in their pantry. One perk that is frequently overlooked is being able to design a work space that is ideal for you. Instead we see pictures, videos, and zoom calls of our colleagues working from their kitchen tables and living room couches. Is it a wonder there is an increase in neck pain, back pain, and headaches? In this article, I hope to help you eliminate much of the repetitive stress resulting from a poorly set up home office.
Ergonomics is the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment. This means you are looking for maximum productivity with minimum wasted efforts. Done well, it results in a pain free work day that doesn’t leave you exhausted. Your goal should be to maintain a normal, neutral posture. If you are successful, you will reduce the physical strains that are likely causing those nagging aches and pains.
Our spine should have an S-shape when viewed from the side which consists of four curves. This spring shape functions as a shock absorber, and we really need to do our best to maintain it. If your spine was to straighten, it would lose its ability to dissipate force. Our body acclimates itself to the positions we maintain regularly. If we continuously hold ourselves in poor sitting positions they will lead to reduced ranges of motion in our joints and imbalances with our muscles. You will quickly find some of your muscles become short and tight while others become long and weak. To make matters worse, any unusual, repetitive stress can cause your structures to wear out faster (think early arthritis). These pathological changes emphasize the importance of including both stretching and mobilization exercises as part of a complete fitness routine.
Now that you know why to sit correctly, let’s discuss how. You want to start with having the right chair for your body type. We all differ in height, weight, and have varying lengths to our limbs. It is best if you can pick a chair that is adjustable to fit you and accommodate your daily tasks. A quality chair is balanced and supports you. The cushion should be firm only allowing you to “sink in” up to about an inch. Anything more will be too soft and not provide enough support. If it is too firm, it will cause increased pressure on your back, glutes, and legs leading to discomfort and numbness. Most office chairs now offer adjustable height and tilt settings. If your chair doesn’t have these options, you can experiment by adding more foam or even firm pillows, but you must avoid making it too soft. It really is worth investing in another chair that can be adjusted to the right height for you as you will be sitting 6-10 hours a day. Don’t just make it work, instead make it work for you.
The right seat height allows your feet to rest comfortably flat on the floor maintaining a 90-degree bend at your knees and hips. If your knees sit higher than your hips, you overstretch your glutes, flatten your back, and shorten your hip flexors resultng in low back pain. This position strains your ligaments and muscles pushing the intervertebral discs posteriorly (backward) putting pressure on the nerves. If your feet cannot reach the floor, you will need a small, stable stool that is wide enough to rest them on.
The tilt adjustment works to reinforce the lumbar support of the chair if leaned slightly backward. If you need to lean forward to write or read on the desk you can tilt it slightly forward. Lumbar support is essential to avoid low back pain. It should help you maintain the lordotic curve of your low back and keep you from slouching. If it is too high it will push on your mid-back forcing you forward, and if it is too low you will sit in front of it to avoid using it at all. The correct spot is right in the center of your low back to support the natural curve. If you don’t have lumbar support on your chair, it is worth investing in a lumbar roll (less than $30 on amazon). It straps on the back of your chair and provides the support you are missing. I personally use one on my office chair and another for driving.
Some chairs have arm rests and others don’t. They should be adjusted to provide support to your arms for reducing neck and shoulder fatigue, but they can also get in the way of your arm position when working. Ideally, you want your shoulders to hang relaxed at your sides while your elbows rest at around 90-110 degrees. This will vary based on activity, but it is most important to remember to bring the work closer to your eyes instead of moving your body closer to the work. Avoid slouching and leaning forward. It may feel better temporarily, but we do this to give our bodies a break from an uncomfortable position or because our stabilizing muscles have grown fatigued. If it is positional, the solution is simple. Adjust how you are sitting and refocus on maintaining good posture. If on the other hand it is because of fatigue, get up and take a break. Personally, I prefer to work while standing and walking. I use sitting when I need to take a break and rest. I find it energizing and much easier to maintain good posture while standing.
Another area to evaluate is your computer monitor. If you are working on a laptop, with a fixed keyboard, it can get tiring very fast. Consider investing in a peripheral keyboard and mouse so you can set the proper height for the monitor instead of trying to find middle ground between the display and keyboard height. The manufacturer of your display will recommend the proper distance based on its size, but most screens should be positioned between 15-30 inches away. If you are using more than one display, make sure the primary one is centered in front of you. The goal is to keep your head in a neutral position without any prolonged extension, bending or rotation. The center of the screen should be around chin height. You can move it a bit higher as long as you’re looking straight ahead, but anything lower will have you looking down resulting in neck strain.
Your tasks will always determine what the best position is for you. For example, if you are typing information from a document, and you can type without looking at the keys, the document should be directly in front of you with the monitor to the side. The height of your keyboard should allow you to keep your elbows at 90-110 degrees with the mouse at the same height. If you must look to one side regularly, such as copying information or using multiple monitors, consider alternating sides every other day or week to maintain balance.
An additional item to consider is the light emitted from the monitor. This can cause eye strain and may even interrupt your sleeping patterns. Many computers and displays allow you to set the temperatures a bit warmer to reduce the blue light and glare. The lighting in your room may be another area you can improve. Working in light that is either too dim or too bright adds strain on your vision causing you to become fatigued faster.
Ultimately, an ill fitting workstation can manifest in nagging health issues with fatigue, irritability, and pain as the most common ones. The physical strain of maintaining an uncomfortable sitting position for several hours will most certainly take its toll on your body. Pay attention to the warning signs your body provides. If you experience symptoms such as headaches, tired eyes, neck pain, back pain, numbness and tingling in your hands or feet, or ongoing fatigue take a look at your work from home set up. Investing the time and few dollars into designing an ideal work space for you will pay dividends in your both your energy level and productivity. It will also save you from suffering with a chronic injury due to the repetitive trauma caused by poor posture.