By now, millions of people who would normally commute to an office are working from home. For many, stiff necks and sore buttocks are making it clear that their homes aren’t ideally set up for spending eight hours a day at the computer.
Abigail Overduin leads the ergonomics program for UBC Human Resources, where she is tasked with keeping 16,000 faculty and staff comfortable, productive and injury-free by helping them optimize their work environments.
We asked her what people can do to bring ergonomics into their homes.
What is ergonomics?
Ergonomics is about fitting the task or the work to the person doing the work. So, rather than requiring people to contort themselves and work in awkward postures, we think about designing an environment that suits the human’s capabilities. This is why working from home, when most of us are unprepared and don’t have the right equipment or set-up, is particularly challenging. We would have designed the workspace to fit the person. Right now, we’re not able to do that.
What sort of discomfort might people encounter if they’re working from home and not set up properly?
Huge numbers of people are now trying to do a full day’s work on a laptop. The smaller screen and small fonts might make you lean forward, or it might be so low that you’re bending your neck down which can create a lot of neck strain. Staring at your screen, particularly if it’s closer than arm’s length away, can lead to eye strain. There can also be wrist pain when typing. The hard surface at the front of the laptop or edge of the table can dig into your wrists. And then there’s your chair. Some of us are trying to use a kitchen chair that provides no lumbar support and forces us to sit up straight. If you are allowed to retrieve your regular office chair and can do so safely, that’s a good idea because it allows you to recline slightly when you sit.
What else should we pay attention to when setting up to work from home?
Hopefully you have an external keyboard and mouse. If you do, position them just below elbow level. You may need to prop yourself up to comfortably reach your keyboard and mouse or you may even want to lower them by putting your keyboard and mouse on a cutting board on your lap.
Our wrists can be particularly vulnerable because typing and clicking places a high workload on our hands and forearms. Try to avoid working with your wrists extended up. It can help to have a table or armrest for forearm support, but make sure that you don’t have pressure from a hard edge digging in to the bottom of your wrist.
An external monitor will make it much easier to get the height right. The top line of text should be at eye level, and you should keep your font large enough so you don’t have to lean in to read it. If you don’t have an external monitor, prop up your screen so you don’t have to bend your neck down, while using the external keyboard and mouse to keep your hands below elbow level.
Because most of us are not going to have things set up properly, it’s more important than ever to get up and move regularly throughout the day—even if it’s just briefly, like getting up for two minutes to get water. That can have a pretty big impact over the course of a whole day.
Can household items help?
You can sit on a pillow to raise yourself up if your chair doesn’t go high enough. A small rolled towel can be used for added lumbar support. Boxes and books can be used as a footrest or to raise your laptop. You can use your table for seated work and then prop things up on a higher surface to do some standing work. Wear comfortable running shoes for standing work.
Where can people get more information?
There are lots of online resources, and if you’re struggling you can also reach out to a professional ergonomist in the community. Many of them offer remote online assessments.