Many of us thought working from home would be temporary: rolling out of bed and staking out a spot at the kitchen table; then staring down at a laptop through hours of Zoom calls. What was expected to last a few months turned into a year, and is now approaching three. At the start of the pandemic, we worked from home for safety. Now, it’s our new normal.
Roughly six in 10 Americans say they are working from home all or a majority of the time, according to a 2022 Pew Research Center survey. For many, it’s by choice. Even 61% of those who have an office to venture into choose to work from the comfort of their home, owing in part to the flexibility.
While WFH may be our new reality, our workspaces haven’t caught up. The change happened so abruptly, there was no thought given to how our WFH setups and routines may affect our ergonomics—and, in turn, our focus and productivity. In a 2020 survey from the American Chiropractic Association, 92% percent of chiropractors said patients reported increased neck and back pain among other musculoskeletal issues since they began staying at home.
“People are making do instead of making right,” says Emily Kiberd, a chiropractor and founder of the Urban Wellness Clinic, who sees clients still working on couches, dining room chairs, and kitchen stools with laptops propped on their legs. “People don’t realize that if we hunch all day—due to that pressure of gravity and postural overload—our bones will start to change and remodel due to that stress.”
In addition to pain, poor ergonomics can also contribute to increased fatigue, muscle strain, and imbalance, ergonomists say.
“Being uncomfortable also reduces focus, because if you’re always fidgeting around to find a good position, you’re focusing more on your discomfort than the job that you should be working on,” says Karen Loesing, a professional ergonomic consultant.
Working without pain should be the goal. Here, ergonomists offer tips to prevent muscle strain and boost productivity by creating a better workstation at home.
Optimize your WFH setup
When Kiberd examines clients’ work-from-home setups, posture is the first thing she addresses. Many people’s computers are positioned so they’re looking down at the screen, which results in hunched shoulders. Instead, your eyes should look on the horizon and hit the top third of the screen. Placing a computer on a stack of books or a laptop stand can do the trick.
Your chair also factors into slumping. Without a chair that supports the lower back (hard surfaces on kitchen or dining room chairs don’t typically provide ample back support), you stop getting sensory feedback and begin to slouch. This pattern continues and over time can increase stress on your back and harm bone structure, Kiberd says.
To achieve the ideal posture, Kiberd suggests investing in a chair whose height allows your hips to be slightly above your knees, and your feet directly on the floor in front of you. This position will help relieve tension in the lower back.
While seated, your ears should be in line with your shoulders, which should be in line with your hips. Elbows should rest toward the side of your body, close to your center of gravity.
If you don’t have an office chair in the home, consider adding a cushion to the back of the chair you’re using to help keep you from slouching.
Protect your wrists
Working at kitchen tables or other hard surfaces can strain your wrists and elbows. Kermit Davis, professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, recommends putting a soft towel on the table where you can rest your wrists. Wrists should ideally be parallel to your workstation.
While good posture improves work productivity during long stretches of focus, perfect posture is not meant to be the goal for the entire workday. In fact, it’s neither possible nor natural. Instead, Kiberd says to aim for “optimal posture.”
“Our day is meant to be dynamic and so is our posture,” Kiberd says. “We’re meant to arch our back and round our back, just not for hours on end each day. We should move in and out of that ‘ideal posture’ by taking breaks, taking a walk, and changing up sitting positions.”
You don’t need to go out and buy an expensive standing desk. The key is posture variability, Davis says. Set a timer to remind yourself to move your legs, stretch, and give your eyes a break from the screen, Loesing says.
Don’t make your bed your office
It may seem convenient, but working from your bed or couch for more than an hour a day is not ergonomic or productive, Kiberd says. Having a dedicated workstation (that enables optimal working posture) outside the bedroom can help separate rest from work, which helps the mind visualize the difference and stay on task.
Maintain a work-life balance
Working from home limits social interactions which naturally came with in-person work. Without stopping to have those conversations on the way to fill up your water bottle or to pick up lunch, you may lose that sense of camaraderie that the screen doesn’t provide in the same way.
“Not having to interact with coworkers day to day, face to face, can manifest in the body as protective posturing like rounded shoulders, hunched forward, and overall less confident posture,” Kiberd says.
Adding socialization to the day can help with the natural responses our bodies have to stimulation and conversation. Consider using the time you would be commuting to the office for social activities outside work.
Focus on prevention not treatment
The healthiest spines are in people who prioritize movement, Kiberd says. Now that commuting has been nonexistent for so many people, natural daily movements are minimized. Focusing on incorporating easy habits into your day-to-day, like taking breaks, will improve posture down the line.
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