With employers closing offices in March to comply with COVID regulations, many of us unexpectedly became home-based employees and had to improvise our office workspace overnight. Although several of us may have desks at home to work at, just as many people found themselves commandeering a spot in the kitchen or sitting on the couch with a lap desk. We made do with what we had and hoped that we would soon be back in our companies’ offices. However, as time goes on many of us are still working from home. It’s time to look at how we can make our workspaces safe, healthy and ergonomically correct without running out to the office store or spending a lot of money. Call it creative DIY.
Although you may still want to work from the couch occasionally, having an ergonomically correct workspace will allow you to work more efficiently and safely. Paying attention to ergonomics will protect your body from injury or recurring discomfort.
Posture and the Spine Connection
Focus on maintaining a neutral spine. Just what does that mean? There are three natural curves in a healthy spine; 1. Neck or cervical spine, which curves gently inward; 2. Mid back or thoracic spine, which curves outward; and 3. Low-back or lumbar spine, which also curves inward. It is important to maintain neutral alignment of these curves to protect the spine from stress and strain when you are standing or sitting for long periods of time. As you set up your workspace, focus on how your back feels. Make sure the position you are in feels natural and not tight or strained.
Desks and Finding a Happy Place
Let’s start with your desk, whether it’s a dining room table, snack bar or even a folding table. Wherever your desk is right now, do your knees, feet and thighs fit comfortably underneath it? If not, try to find a space where you don’t have to press your knees together to fit and you aren’t up against another surface. It is important to find something that is the right fit. No matter what you choose as your desk, the keyboard and mouse should be at elbow height when you are seated. Test this by sitting at your desk and holding your arms naturally at your sides and then bend your elbows. They should be very slightly in front of your body but still at your side, as if you were typing, to get the proper height for your work surface. If you are improvising, you can use books to raise your desk or adjust your seating arrangement (possibly sitting on a cushion) if your desk is too high.
Computer Design and Assessment
Computer set up is also key in making sure you have a healthy workstation. Laptops are popular; however, they are not very ergonomic due to their design. There are things you can do to improve laptop ergonomics if you are working for long periods on your laptop. Even if you’re using detached keyboard, mouse and/or monitors, you should place things correctly.
One Monitor, Two Monitors
Regardless of how many monitors you use, there are a few things you should consider. First, the top monitor should be at, or slightly below eye level. When holding your neck straight you should be able to easily see the top third of your screen. Consider propping up your monitor on books to get it to the correct height or adjust your chair up if your monitor is too high. The monitor should be as least an arm’s length from you so that you can view the entire screen without moving your head from left to right. If you have problems seeing the screen when at the appropriate distance, enlarge the text. Lastly, try to avoid direct light on your monitor to avoid harsh light as it is hard on your eyes. Depending on the number of monitors that you have, they will need to be placed differently. If you’re using one monitor it should be placed center in front of you. Two monitors should line up side-by-side without a gap meeting in the middle of your sight. If you’re using more than two monitors the main monitor should be in the middle with the other two on each side with no gap and pointed slightly in.
The A to Zs on your Keyboard
Keyboard placement should be directly in front of you. Your shoulders should be relaxed, and your elbows close to your body. Your wrists should be straight and in line with your forearms. To ensure that you have the correct keyboard height, place the keyboard on your work surface and type a few lines. If your wrists remain straight and your upper arms are close to your body without forcing it, you are good. Once the height is correct, make sure it is the proper distance. As you type, your elbows should be naturally at your sides without discomfort. A straight keyboard or one that tilts away from you (the bottom row of the keyboard is raised) helps promote good wrist placement.
Clicking with your Mouse
The mouse should be near the keyboard and easy to reach without overextending any part of your body. The best placement is by your dominant hand slightly in front of and next to the keyboard.
Chairs from the bottom up
Now that your desk is correct, and your computer is aligned perfectly, let’s take a look at your office chair. If you are lucky enough to have an adjustable office chair, great! Just make sure that it is adjusted correctly. If you do not have an adjustable office chair in your home workspace, there are plenty of ways to make that dining room chair ergonomically correct. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up to review all the information you need to keep that spine healthy. Your feet should be flat on the floor, your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Your leg length may create a dilemma here if once you have adjusted your chair height, your arms are no longer at the right height for the keyboard. Now is where DIY creativity comes in handy. If you need a higher chair to reach the keyboard your feet may not reach the floor. If you can’t fix this with a pair of comfortable shoes, then you may want to try a footrest, step stool or, our ever-useful books. If your chair does not have lower-back support to maintain those natural curves we discussed earlier, try a rolled-up towel or small pillow in the small of your back.
Take a Stand
If you are like me, you prefer standing at your workstation. Ever since I heard that you can burn 88 calories an hour at a standing desk, I was sold. Just know that a standing desk comes with its own ergonomic risks. If you decide to use a standing desk start slowly, maybe 30 minutes a day and build up to ensure you are not going to experience leg, foot or back pain. All the ergonomic rules we just went over apply to a standing desk also, so make sure your standing desk is not too tall or too short for you. Remember that natural spine, stand up straight. Pay attention to your posture at that standing desk or your kitchen counter. If you are feeling any discomfort, stop and examine how you are positioned and adjust accordingly.
Check out this video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXO0DWg1fbs&feature=youtu.be , for a bit of ergonomic comic relief, and remember that we are all in this together no matter where our desk is.
Cynthia Jones is a Wellness Strategy Manager for Vitality Group. Since lockdown, she has become a serious scone baker trying odd combinations of flavors. Cynthia has a BFA and enjoys drawing and watercolor. When weather cooperates, you will find her either in her garden or bicycling, two of her favorite things.