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Is working from home a pain – literally? Maybe your home-office ergonomics are out of whack

Here’s what you need to know about your chair, computer and workstation.

Be honest. Were you mindful of good ergonomics when you created your home office back in March? Or did you set up your office space haphazardly, never imagining you’d still be working at your kitchen table come fall?

According to Jennifer Mempin, CPHRM, UCLA Health’s Injury Prevention and Ergonomics manager, most of us fall in the latter category. And even those who initially tried to set up ergonomically correct workspaces – or already had them at home – may now find they’re answering email from the living room couch.     

Creating – and sustaining – a designated and comfortable work area at home are key components to a productive and healthy work environment. That’s why Mempin recommends a quick re-evaluation of your home-office space as your work-from-home experience lingers on. For guidance, check out this Workstation Ergonomics video on the UCLA Health Environmental Health & Safety website.

To start, position yourself in your workspace and assess how your body feels.

Do you feel neck strain when you lean over the computer monitor? Are your wrists sore from propping them on the hard edges of your desk or table? Chronic backaches, muscle pain, stiffness and numbness can all contribute to a decrease in work productivity and should be promptly addressed.

“Good ergonomic posture is ‘neutral’ posture – the position that places the least amount of stress on the musculoskeletal system while still allowing for maximum control and strength,” explains Mempin.   “Your body position should support the natural curves of the spine and be in good alignment – no hunching, leaning or twisting. And your knees and elbows should be at open angles, with your feet firmly supported.”

If you feel discomfort, prioritize the following:

Your chair: Mempin suggests investing in a well-cushioned office chair that can be adjusted to your height and set to a lumbar-supporting position. “If that is not possible, make sure your chair has back support and a cushioned seat, and that your feet are supported on the floor or a footrest. If the chair is too high, place a stool or box under your feet so your hips and knees are parallel to the floor.”

Manufacturers provide a range of ergonomic options when designing “task” chairs, which are reflected in the cost. High-end ergonomic chairs, which run $1,000 or more, have multiple adjustment options and can provide a personalized fit. Lower-priced chair designs, which start at about $200, have fewer adjustment options and are made with less-durable materials.  

Mempin suggests the GoodFit app, a step-by-step chair configuration application that walks users through the measurement process and offers individualized seating solutions.

Your work surface: Your work surface should be the appropriate height and have adequate space.  “Your monitor should be positioned at approximately arm’s-length distance in front of you and your eyes should be looking at the top of the screen, so at home, it’s likely you will need a book to raise it to the correct position,” advises Mempin. And what about the keyboard and mouse? “Switch to free-standing devices like the ones you had at your office workplace (wireless, if possible to avoid trip hazards from cords), and consider placing a small towel or buying a wrist support that provides cushion for your wrists to ensure neutral typing postures.

Regardless of the type of computer you use, your input devices should be positioned close to your body and at, or slightly below, elbow height. Your upper arms should be relaxed and down at the sides; elbows bent 90 to 105 degrees, with forearms/wrists straight and level.

Your workspace: Paying close attention to your work habits – and recognizing that you likely have secondary workstations in the home – is also important. “Many people had come to depend on height-adjustable work surfaces for regular movement at work. Without this equipment, they are trying alternatives such as standing at kitchen counters or a raised bar – often leaning on the surface or sitting on unsupportive stools,” says Mempin. 

Other places people move to with their computers or phones are couches or beds. However, ergonomically correct positions are very difficult to maintain in those locations as their cushions are designed for relaxed positions. Sitting with insufficient back and/or foot support places additional strain on your muscles and can cause discomfort.  

Working on a couch should be minimized or avoided. If you must do so, Mempin recommends placing your device on a lap desk or tray as they will protect you from the heat of your laptop and also raise your device to a more comfortable level for reading and typing.

Working in a kitchen may offer you the flexibility to stand and work. “Stand for as long as you feel comfortable. When you fatigue or begin to slouch, take a break or change to a seated position, and alternate between sitting and standing positions at regular intervals,” says Mempin.

Creating a healthy work environment is more than just proper furniture placement – our “headspace” may need adjustments too. 

“Working from home during a pandemic means that we are at our computers virtually all day – no outside meetings, no lunch dates and no chats with officemates down the hall,” says Mempin. “To stay healthy and productive, we must stay mindful and accept that our lives are now more stressful on every level. We need to give ourselves permission to recharge throughout the workday to relieve some of the pressures. “

According to Mempin, this means taking mini-breaks – a  1-2 minute stretch, a gaze outside/away from your computer screen or a few deep breaths – every 20 minutes – and after each hour, taking a longer break or changing tasks for at least 5 to 10 minutes by standing, stretching, drinking a glass of water.

“Think about how energizing it was to leave the building for a meeting or to meet a friend for lunch.   Since we can no longer do that, we need to find alternative ways to physically and mentally break up the day. Maintaining specific and regular work hours helps, as does going for regular walks outside,” Mempin says. “While you’re walking around that block, imagine you are walking to your next meeting – when you get back to your desk, you will feel refreshed and ready for it.”

According to Mempin, we have proven how quickly we can adapt to change. And while things remain uncertain, we have control over our mental and physical environments. Being mindful of our work-from-home environments and office ergonomics is important, as are healthy attitudes and work practices.

“So many aspects of our lives have changed – and the space between home life and work life has diminished significantly,” says Mempin. “We need to navigate with a different perspective. If we are mindful of how we are living and working, we can create environments that are as healthy and positive as possible.”

For more information, go to UCLAHealth.org/safety/office-ergonomics


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