Ergonomics 101

How to optimize your work-from-home setup

Whether you have your own home office or are using a laptop at your kitchen table, if you’re one of the many Canadians who are working from home, you know how important a comfortable setup can be.

Statistics Canada reported in July that close to a third of businesses reported 10 per cent or more of their workforce was teleworking or working remotely on May 29, almost twice the level reported as of Feb. 1. So, with those numbers in mind, it may be worth ensuring your home work station is as ergonomic as you can make it – and no, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to do this.

“Many people are struggling to make their home environments work as offices, but don’t know how to do that effectively,” says Donna Costa, director of the occupational therapy program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

She says two of the main ergonomic issues to keep in mind when working from home are the device you’re using and your chair.

“They call it a laptop because that’s what it was originally designed for – an alternative to the desktop PC that was portable. But having the laptop on your lap is the worst ergonomic position,” Costa explains.

“Your eyes should be level with the top of your computer screen so you are not looking down, causing neck strain.”

To solve this, you can simply put the laptop on a few books to raise its height, Costa says.

“Your hips, knees and ankles should be flexed at 90-degree angles, and your elbows also bent. Your chair should have adequate lumbar support,” she adds. “If you are having back pain, neck pain, wrist pain, your position is not correct and needs to be adjusted.”

Alice Holland, a physical therapist and director of regional development at Stride Strong Physical Therapy LLC, says she sees a lot of patients who have ergonomic concerns.

Ergonomic tools

She shares four ergonomic tools that can help people stay comfortable while working from home and prevent injury.

  • Laptop or monitor riser: “This is fundamental,” Holland says, explaining that it helps people avoid craning their necks. “Raise the viewing area to the level of your natural forward eyesight for the greatest comfort,” she says, adding that an external keyboard and mouse would also be helpful if you’re using a laptop that will now be on a stand.
  • Low-back support: If the chair you’re using doesn’t provide enough support, Holland says a low-back support tool, such as a small cushion, can help immensely. Low-back supports range in price, Holland adds, but the cheapest option is a rolled-up bath towel.
  • Keyboard and/or mouse rest pad: These can help support your wrists at a neutral angle, Holland explains.
  • Footstool: “People who have short legs in comparison to the table surface should invest in a footstool to rest their legs on,” Holland says, explaining it can prevent low back strain and pressure on the hamstrings. Options include memory foam and adjustable models.

Another tool you may find helpful is a simple mouse – just a different kind of mouse than you’re probably used to.

Ergonomic slanted computer mouse

“Regular computer [mice] force your hand into a strained, arched position all day long,” explains John Fawkes, an NSCA-certified personal trainer, Precision Nutrition-certified nutritional counselor and editor at The Unwinder. “Compare that with ergonomic [mice], which actually come with a slanted design, letting your wrist and hand work in a resting tilted position, sort of like a handshake.”

Ergonomic models are especially helpful for anyone who deals with wrist pain, he says, adding that great models can be found for less than $30.

And while it may not be the first thing you think of when you hear the word “ergonomic”, here’s another thing to think about: blue light.

You’re probably well aware of the negative effects of prolonged exposure to blue light (the light from devices such as computers and smartphones), but with most of us stuck at home for both work and leisure, blue light is pretty hard to avoid right now.

So, Fawkes suggests looking into a pair of blue-light-blocking glasses.

“These are a must for anyone who looks at a computer screen for more than an hour a day. Which, let’s be real, is basically all of us,” he says.

“Blue light has this pesky ability of drying out and irritating our eyes, leading to things like headaches. It can also mess with our circadian rhythm, which is why you hear all the time to get off screens roughly an hour before you go to bed.”

Get creative

Remember, you don’t have to spend a bunch of money to make your workstation more ergonomic.

“You don’t have to go out and buy equipment,” Costa says. “If your feet don’t touch the floor when you’re sitting in your chosen chair, get a book or two to serve as a footrest.”

Resist the couch

Using your laptop while stretched out on your couch may seem appealing at first, but it’s really not the best choice for your body.

“Sitting on a firm chair that has you in the correct posture is the best,” Costa says. “Your sofa may be more comfortable, but you won’t last long sitting on that comfy couch, and your productivity will suffer.”

Light it up

When it comes to lighting for your work area, Costa says natural light is the best, so try to set yourself up in front of a window if you can, and then supplement with additional lighting as needed.

Keep moving

“One of the most important ergonomic principles is to take periodic stretch breaks,” says Costa. “Our bodies are not meant to be static; they’re meant to move. Make it a point to get up and stretch once every hour during your workday.”

It can also be helpful to stick with the schedule you used to follow before you started working from home. One of the downsides of remote work is some people end up working more than they used to because there’s no separation between “work” and “home”.

“If your previous work schedule was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break, try to replicate that at home,” suggests Costa.

And, she says, remember to take breaks from the computer screen once an hour, even if it’s just for a few minutes.