With many companies instituting work-at-home policies in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus, you may suddenly find yourself working from home in a less than ideal space.
Whether you have access to a full-fledged home office or have to work from your bed in a studio apartment, we have tips from ergonomic experts that will minimize strain on your body while you’re working at a home.
“As long as you understand some basic ergonomic concepts, you can translate those to multiple work areas,” says Todd Baker, principal of Empowerment Ergonomics, a consulting firm in Ithaca, N.Y., and the lead ergonomics consultant for the Cornell University Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program.
“You may even have a bit more flexibility at home than you would at the office to change your position regularly and keep moving, which will benefit your muscles and circulation.” (Check out these tech ideas that can make it easier to work from home.)
When at a Desk or Table
When assessing your workstation, start with your chair. But you don’t need an expensive, adjustable task chair to get a healthy posture. “What I would do first is try to achieve a relatively comfortable seated position, and from there, make the rest of the workstation fit,” Baker says.
An ideal seated position is one that allows your feet to rest on the floor while your pelvis and lower back fit snugly against the back of the chair. In this position, the chair supports you and you avoid putting undue pressure on your spine.
If your feet don’t reach the floor, place your feet on a stable footrest. If your pelvis and lower back don’t reach the back of your chair comfortably, put a pillow or a contoured cushion behind you and lean on that. “The goal is to be slightly reclined,” Baker says, “which takes a little pressure off the lower back and allows the musculature of the upper back and neck to be more relaxed.”
Next, evaluate your chair in relation to your desk or table. You want your arms to be bent around 90 degrees or up to 115 degrees when you place them on your keyboard, with your wrists in a neutral position (not resting on the keyboard). You also want your shoulders relaxed, with your elbows near your sides or on the armrests. “The majority of standard desks and tables are too high,” Baker says, “so you may find you need to raise yourself up or lower your work tools to improve your posture.” If your chair isn’t adjustable, you could raise it up by sitting on a pillow or cushion.
When Positioning Your Screen
The top of the computer monitor should be at eye level so that you’re gazing slightly down toward the center of the screen. This will keep your neck from straining, and also helps prevent dry eyes, headaches, and blurred vision. “We focus better and our eyes work better when we read text slightly lower than eye level because our eyes open less—and we’re less likely to get dry eye,” says Jeffrey Anshel, an optometrist and author of “Visual Ergonomics in the Workplace.”
If you have a laptop, you can create this position by using a separate monitor (while using your laptop keyboard) or by using a separate keyboard (while placing your laptop monitor on top of books or a desk stand).
Also, remember not to sit too close to the screen. Your eyes should be at least 24 inches or your arm's length away from the computer, whichever is further. And give your eyes regular breaks from the monitor. “I call it the 20/20/20 rule,” Anshel says. “Every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break and look 20 feet away.”
When on a Bed or Couch
It’s common for people to slump or hunch when using a laptop in bed, which can lead to neck pain and backaches. But there are ways to make a bed workstation ergonomically sound.
First, sit with your back to the wall or headboard, with one pillow placed horizontally behind your lower back for support and one vertically along the length of your spine for cushioning.
Next, put a pillow underneath your thighs, to reduce pressure on your lower back. Then make a desk of sorts by using either a lap tray or traylike surface placed on top of a pillow. As with a real desk, your elbows should be bent at about 90 degrees, with your wrists in a neutral position on the keyboard. And the top of the computer screen should be at eye level. “Your work tools should be at the correct height compared to your body wherever you are,” Baker says.
If you are working on a couch, the same principles apply. Your lower back should be supported by a pillow as you lean slightly back, and instead of placing a pillow underneath your stretched-out thighs, make sure your feet comfortably reach the floor or a footrest.
When Working at a Counter
If you don’t have a standing desk option, you can use your kitchen countertop for a standing stint. Again, aim to have your elbows bent at a 90 degree angle for typing, and if you can, place the top of your computer monitor at eye level. But even if you don’t have a peripheral monitor that is separate from your laptop in this scenario, “it’s okay to stand at your breakfast bar or the kitchen island for 10 or 15 minutes as a way to change positions,” Baker says.
When Working and Talking
One of the quickest ways to tighten up your neck, back, and shoulders is to cradle your cell phone between your shoulder and ear. So if you have to type and talk at the same time, use earphones, earbuds, or a headset, or put your phone on speaker mode. This will free up your hands and your muscles.
When Working for Long Stretches
Regardless of where you work, the best thing you can do for your body is to change positions frequently and take breaks to move around. One good strategy is 20 minutes of sitting, 8 minutes of standing, and 2 minutes of moving around.
“The good news is that at home you may not have the same corporate cultural constraints that make you feel you shouldn’t be up and walking around every 30 minutes,” Baker says. “So it may be a little easier for you to change positions to go to the kitchen counter for a while or sit in the recliner for a bit and be a little more flexible at home.”