Making 'work from home' work for you

Contact: Erin Flynn

A laptop computer sits on an overturned laundry basket in a living room.Overturned laundry baskets do not make FOR ideal desks. However, like your lights and darks on wash day, work and home life became difficult to separate when the unfolding pandemic forced businesses and schools to shut down in-person operations. In the absence of a dedicated home office, many of us grabbed what we could and set up makeshift workstations at the kitchen table or sidled a lawn chair up to a work bench for some video conferencing privacy.

But “making do” for a couple of weeks turned into several months. Some of us might not go back to the office until next year, or even at all, as a growing number of companies choose to continue remote work indefinitely. That means if you're still operating at a temporary work setup, the aches and pains of improper posture and repetitive movements are likely creeping in. And your employer could be feeling the pain, too.

“When we are uncomfortable when we're working, we're not as productive,” says Dr. Debra Lindstrom, a professor of occupational therapy who specializes in ergonomics, or the study of how we work. “And that discomfort, if it continues without us doing something about it, may actually cause some long- term problems.”

NECK NEUTRALITY

Maintaining a neutral posture that supports the natural curves of your spine is critical to avoiding injury. This means sitting up straight, relaxing your shoulders and looking straight ahead, and making sure that your chair and desk are positioned so that your elbows are bent at about a 90 to 110-degree angle. Your forearms, wrists and hands should be in a straight line, and your feet should be planted squarely on the floor. How you get to that neutral position— whether it's buying a fancy office chair, using a balance ball or just adding a lumbar cushion to a kitchen seat—is up to you.

“I really recommend people pay attention to when they feel comfortable. When you're uncomfortable, make a change,” says Lindstrom, emphasizing the need to pay attention and be creative with what you have around rather than ignoring discomfort. “People may take ibuprofen or Tylenol because they have pain while working instead of paying attention to the positions they need to change.”
Movement is another key to maintaining a healthy work environment. Sitting too long and standing too long can both be detrimental. Ideally, you should sit for no more than 20 minutes at a time before taking a break. Some researchers suggest that we should also not stand in the same position for more than about 10 minutes at a time to avoid musculoskeletal problems or increased cardiac risk. Whether standing or sitting, change it up frequently to help to keep blood flowing and reduce stress on joints.” We have to think about our own body and the work that we're currently doing,” Lindstrom says.

Scrolling through emails might be easier to complete while standing than writing a manuscript, for instance. ”

Common Mistakes

An illustration demonstrating the proper posture for sitting at a computer desk.

Sitting up straight about an arm's length away from the computer monitor is an optimal position to avoid stress on the neck, wrist and back.

Poor ergonomics contribute to a number of neck, wrist and back injuries over time, but there are simple adjustments you can make to your workspace in the short term to ease the stress on your body—and your wallet—in the long term.

Computer monitor position is key. You should position yourself about an arm's length away, looking at the top third of your screen. Risers or even a stack of books can be used to elevate your monitor or laptop to an appropriate level. Computer glasses are also a good investment if you find yourself constantly leaning forward to read what's on your screen or tilting your head up or down to bypass bifocals or progressive lenses.

“It's also critical to have an external keyboard so that you're not hunched over,” Lindstrom says, adding that what we think of as wrist supports should really be used to support the padded part of the palm in order to maintain a neutral position while typing and avoid putting pressure on the carpal tunnel. “Problems with the carpal tunnel can occur when the wrists are heavy on the desk or keyboard, very flexed or very extended.”

In addition to an external keyboard, she recommends laptop users also invest in a mouse rather than relying on the touchpad.
“You're really using a lot of isometric contraction with that finger to control a touchpad, no matter how light you think you are moving your finger,” says Lindstrom, which can lead to overuse injuries. Becoming ambidextrous with your mouse use will also ease some of the isolated strain on your muscles.

Whether working from home, the office or the back patio, the most important factor in maintaining a healthy and productive workspace is movement.

“It's really moving more so we hurt less.”