Basic ergonomics for home workers
Do you ever wake up in the morning and feel like your back’s killing you? If so, then you’re not alone. Anecdotally and officially, it seems that the last few years of home working have wreaked a heavy toll on the bodies of young and old people alike, with the Guardian reporting last year that work-related musculoskeletal disorders are now the second most significant contributor towards people of employable age leaving the workforce. And these issues are particularly marked among people in their twenties and thirties.
In this month’s mindfulness and wellbeing post, we’ll be sharing some practical tips on creating an ergonomically-sound workspace which will nurture your creative spirit and inspire productivity while also helping to protect your body. As an important disclaimer, we’d like to emphasise that this post does not constitute medical advice, and we’d strongly recommend contacting your trusted healthcare professional about any immediate posture-related problems that you’re concerned about.
So what do we mean when we talk about an ergonomic work environment? Your mental picture probably consists of a sensible-looking desk and an executive chair, but actually one of the most influential pieces of equipment on posture is your humble laptop. How you position and use your laptop will impact strongly on your overall posture, particularly since using a laptop placed flat on a table without any external accessories is likely to encourage you to hunch, something which is unsustainable over prolonged periods of time, and likely to result in shoulder or back pain.
Part of the reason that laptop stands have become so popular in recent years is that they help to keep your eyes where they should be, which is level with your screen. If you don’t have a stand already and you aren’t able to buy one, Wired recommends angling a level-arch file or chopping board on top of a pile of books to create an appropriate slant. Also increasingly common these days - for very good reasons - are external keyboards and mice, which can help to reduce discomfort in the neck and upper back. And if your space and budget allow it, using one or even two external monitors will not only encourage a more appropriate posture, but will also make your work more easily visible to you and help to avoid eye strain.
Next comes non-tech hardware, such as your chair and desk. Posture-wise, the best type of office chair will generally be one that is adjustable, has elbow rests to reduce strain on your neck, shoulders and back, and allows you to sit in a comfortable position with your knees level with your hips, and your feet touching the floor. If this isn’t possible, try using a footrest instead. Much has been made of alternative standing and seating arrangements, such as standing desks and stability balls, but the general consensus is that these work better as a break from your regular office chair set-up rather than as an alternative, since they in turn can tend to strain other areas of the body.
But even the best-designed office chair is no substitute for regularly getting up and moving around in the course of your working day, since regular breaks will keep your blood flowing and ensure a steady supply of oxygen to your brain, helping you to stay alert and remain focused. If at all possible, try to breathe outside air at least once in a working day, or even better, try going for a short walk somewhere. As well as boosting your physical wellbeing and giving you some welcome non-screen-time, the change of scenery will help you to reflect on your work and perhaps even inspire new ideas.
And in this same spirit, try to avoid working from the sofa or in bed where possible, because this will automatically encourage your body to slump, while the sense of comfort that soft furnishings create can also dissuade you from getting some much-needed movement. Working from a place more commonly associated with relaxation can also impact on your productivity when working, not to mention your ability to relax at the end of the day when your tasks are over.
Of course, not everybody is lucky enough to have access to a dedicated home office with comfortable, professional furniture. Students, young people, house sharers, and other individuals living in cramped or crowded accommodation can all struggle to WFH comfortably and effectively. But even then, there can be ways to mitigate your situation. Wired magazine provides some useful damage-limitation tips for those who are forced to work from sub-par settings due to economic or other difficulties, such as mixing things up by occasionally working in a standing position from kitchen counters, or leaning an ironing board against a wall for a makeshift standing desk. And if space constraints or other factors mean that you have no other alternative but to work from your bed, the Guardian recommends creating a laptop stand from a book balanced over a pillow, and remembering to use additional pillows behind you to support your lower back.
Lastly, it’s important to focus on the psychological sustainability of our working habits, which is what makes it all the more important to schedule regular breaks and to try to create a distinction between work time and personal time. As silly as it might sound, the freelancer cliché of ‘commuting’ by getting dressed, walking round the neighbourhood and coming home again to start the day’s work can actually be effective in that it marks a definite beginning of the working day. You could even wind down in a similar manner by going for a second short walk at the end of the day, once your activities have finished.
We hope these tips have provided some insights into how we can weave ergonomics into our everyday working routine, even when challenged by suboptimal living situations. If you’re a remote worker or freelancer and you have any more tips for creating a well-thought-out home working environment, we’d love to hear them in the comments. Until the next time!
Rise in back pain and long-term sickness linked to home working – ONS
Why you shouldn’t work from bed (and a guide to doing it anyway
Office ergonomics: Your how-to guide
Everything You Need to Set Up an Ergonomic Home Office
Set up an ergonomic home office before you destroy your body
Working from home is ruining your posture. Here’s how to fix it