Working From Home? What Do You Know About Ergonomics?

Man working from home back pain caused by poor ergonomics.

March 13, 2020, is a date that many now-dusty desk calendars are stuck on. It is the day that Covid-19 was declared a national emergency, forcing thousands of workers to pack-up their files and computers. It was thought that most employees would temporarily work from home until the virus was under control. People feared their duration of time away from the office could be as long as four whole weeks.

It has now been more than 10 months since that day. Four weeks, for many, has become forever, with many offices permanently shifting to remote work. At first, workers transformed dining room tables and comfy TV-watching chairs into makeshift offices.

“Before the pandemic, the total fraction of American workers who worked at least half the time from home was only about four percent — that is, until coronavirus,” says Greg Rosalsky from NPR’s Planet Money podcast.

And now, Global Workplace Analytics predicts, “Our best estimate is that we will see 25-30 percent of the workforce at home on a multiple-days-a-week basis by the end of 2021.”

As we carry on in this new normal, complaints of physical discomfort are surging. From eye strain to neck and back pain, to hand and wrist issues, it became clear that spending 20-40 hours a week sitting in a makeshift office could cause physical problems.

The American Chiropractic Association recently conducted a survey on its Facebook page and found that more than 90 percent of respondents said they have noticed an increase in patients complaining about issues associated with working at home during the pandemic. It’s clear makeshift isn’t good enough anymore. Both employers and employees need to recognize the importance of comfort and health when it comes to productivity and job satisfaction.

What Does Ergonomics Mean When You Are At Home?

The basic dictionary definition of ergonomics is “the study of people’s efficiency in their working environment.” But of course, the pandemic has redefined the working environment itself. Typically, ergonomics are associated not only with work output but also physical health conditions linked to environments. The most common health complaints that surface as a result of poor ergonomics, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, are musculoskeletal disorders including:

Your Home Office Ergonomic Plan

If you are a full or part-time remote worker, you need to reconsider your environment to prevent pain and injury. Ergonomic Trends Magazine provides valuable guidance on how to set up the ideal home workplace, including seven key tips:

  1. Use a comfortable chair with back support. Armrests are ideal and should be set at a height that allows your feet to rest flat on the floor with your thighs positioned roughly parallel to the ground.
  2. Your chair should also recline and tilt with tension control.
  3. Make sure your chair has a seat depth in the range of 16.5” to 18.5.″
  4. Your legs should fit comfortably under your desk.
  5. The angle between your forearms and upper arms should be between 90 and 110 degrees while at rest on the desk.
  6. Place your monitor about 20 inches in front of you, or at arm’s length.
  7. The top line of your screen should be at or below eye level.

Keep Moving

Furniture and posture are essential, but so too is the amount of time you spend moving every day. Our bodies do not like to be stuck in the same position for extended periods of time.

When you work in an office building, you likely move more than you realize. You walk from your parking spot, pop-in to a colleague’s office to solve a problem, take coffee breaks, and use the restroom. Doctors refer to this as non-exercise activity thermogenesis or NEAT. You should aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity every day for optimal health. However, NEAT is in its own category and includes all the energy-burning activity that occurs when you’re not eating, sleeping, or intentionally exercising.

The New York Times reports, “Many of us haven’t just changed where we work; we’ve also changed how we work. We no longer walk down the hall for a meeting, dart across the street for a coffee, or even walk to the subway for a commute. Instead, we just sit.”

It’s important to frequently get up from your chair and walk around your room or house. Even if the movement seems small—like walking to the kitchen for a glass of water—it’s essential. Small activities burn calories, too; they keep your body agile. To establish healthy work-from-home habits, start by setting a timer or a calendar reminder to move and stretch in some way at least every 30 minutes.

Working From Home with Back Pain?

If you’re already experiencing back pain or suffering from the other effects of a remote office, you need to address your symptoms. It’s not too late to solve the problem. Listen to your body — if your back hurts, contact your doctor. You can also make some easy adjustments to your workspace to optimize your ergonomics situation.

According to the medical journal Ergonomics in Design, there are some low-cost home ergonomic solutions that can provide immediate relief:

  1. Using a pillow to elevate the seat height.
  2. Putting a pillow and/or rolled-up towel behind the back for lumbar support.
  3. Moving your chair closer to the desk or tables so that your back is supported against the back of the seat.
  4. When using a laptop, place a lap desk or large pillow under the computer to raise the monitor when using it on the lap.
  5. Use an external keyboard and mouse, along with raising the monitor by placing a stack of books or a box under the laptop when using a laptop on a desk.
  6. When possible, use an external monitor at the right height (e.g., top at eye height) and centered on you.
  7. When using dual or multiple monitors, keep the primary monitor directly in front of you and to place the secondary monitors (e.g., laptop or second external monitor) to the side of the primary monitor.

Small, inexpensive changes can make a big difference, but make sure that your doctor is aware of your issues, too. She or he will be able to monitor your health over time and will provide counsel should you need to take corrective measures such as anti-inflammatory medications, injections, or surgery.

The bottom line is that this new normal might be here to stay. Be mindful of the potential health risks associated with less-than-optimal work environments that cause strain and pain. Some resulting musculoskeletal disorders can pose long-term problems. Now is the time to make adjustments and talk to your doctor so that you can work productively without pain.