If you are reading this article, there is a solid chance you are a member of the growing workforce that works remotely, or even from home. In the last few years, the number of people working remotely has risen to almost half the population, with as many as 70% of employees working remotely at least one day a week. This means that a rising number of people are seeing their offices less and less, if at all. Arrangements like this can allow you to exert greater control over your schedule, and give you more opportunities for self-care.
However, because so many of us are limited in our knowledge of and practice with ergonomics, working from home can actually be a greater strain on your body. It’s true that the home is typically a lower stress environment for most people. But it is also typically not a place that has been optimized to minimize strain on your body while you handle your responsibilities. If you are working remotely for an employer who works hard at providing comfortable working environments for all of its employees, you may actually be experiencing more stress on your body than your in-office counterparts.
It’s likely you haven’t noticed these issues, but now is a good time to start assessing your remote work ergonomics and take steps to improve them. Getting comfortable on the couch with your laptop as part of your workday is not good if it leads to chronic back, neck, and wrist problems.
Read on to learn more about how to adopt healthy behaviors that improve your ergonomics at home, products you can buy that make the home office a much more sustainable place to be, and even some guidance for managers who work with remote teams.
Why Ergonomics is Important
We have another article dedicated to discussing what ergonomics is, why it is important, and what can happen if you don’t follow healthy practices and leverage ergonomic gear. We encourage you to read that article to get a deeper sense of why this issue is important. We will only roughly review the importance here.
Simply put, ergonomics is about more than well-designed keyboards and computer mice. Ergonomics is about a well-designed workplace that reduces the strain on your body and mind and encourages healthy practices. Quality hardware is definitely part of that equation, but it also includes simple behaviors like positioning your hands and feet, general posture, and more.
These products and practices make work more sustainable in the long-term, improve productivity, and improve general mood. They also ward against serious health complications that, if left unchecked, can become chronic, lifetime maladies. Common examples of these include tendonitis, bursitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and muscle spasms.
Needless to say, having a good understanding of ergonomics leads to a longer healthier life and a much more tolerable work environment. Everyone is encouraged to apply at least some of the tips and tricks in this article.
Working at Home vs Working in the Office
Ergonomics has gained traction in the modern office because people recognized that we were all, slowly but surely, experiencing harm while at work. Office chairs provided minimal support, there was an emphasis on constantly sitting for long periods, cheap but oppressive fluorescent bulbs were installed over more expensive options with softer light. All of these things and more combined to create a stigma of office buildings being dreary and unpleasant places to be.
Though the modern employer has come a long way in ameliorating the negative factors involved in going to work, most people would still probably say that working from home would be infinitely more pleasant. Beyond just being an easier commute, there’s a sense of greater flexibility, less pressure, and just a more comfortable workspace.
Simple Behaviors to Improve Home Ergonomics
First, we’ll review behaviors and techniques you can start applying today to improve your home-work experience. You’d be surprised how many little ways you engage with your work that place unnecessary strain on your mind and body. Fortunately, many of these behaviors take only a minute but can have a life long impact on your health.
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to do all of these all of the time. Find a blend that works best for you in terms of helping you feel energized and comfortable. Some people, eye strain and neck issues will be more of a problem, whereas others may have more issues in the back and wrists. Feel free to fine-tune whatever system you create.
Finally, it always helps to get a perspective from a doctor. Be sure to tell them about any concerns you have, minor or major, about occasional aches and pains. They can help you determine if they are something that can be addressed with some stretching, or if it’s a sign of something more serious. They can also help you design a program that’s a better fit for you.
Dedicated Spaces Save Time and Improve Comfort
If you can, setting up a home office can save you a lot of trouble and improve your work experience. One of the benefits of having an established work area is that it’s easier to set up and get started in a way that you know is adjusted for your needs. When you work from home, it’s much easier to get in the habit of drifting around the house or finding the “most comfortable” seat like the couch.
As easy going as this is, it’s not great for your physical health. Try to set up a room where you can quickly slot back into an ergonomically appealing setup. The easier you make it to work responsibly, the more likely you are to do it. You will also likely see higher productivity in general if you can make this work. If you can’t find a dedicated room, try to establish a standard setup for you and your computer/other work materials to create wherever you do end up settling.
Shift Your Laptop Occasionally
One of the hard truths about working from home is most of us will do so on a laptop. This is a unique challenge because a proper ergonomic setup is one where the arms can rest at 90 degrees while your screen is at eye level. This is impossible with a laptop. A wireless keyboard or an additional monitor can make it possible, but these can be hard to carry around.
A simple solution is to occasionally switch which area of your body gets priority. If you have spent an hour working with your computer and keyboard in your lap, try moving to a position where you can have your laptop in a more elevated place. Unfortunately either way, you are placing a little strain on your wrist or some strain on your neck, but mixing it up makes it less likely to cause long-term damage.
Watch How You’re Sitting
Once you’re settled with your laptop, how are you sitting? Working from home does allow you to take a laid back posture, even putting your feet up on the table while you lounge on a cushy sofa. Instead, your goal should be to achieve a healthy neutral body position, where all of your joints are naturally aligned. OSHA guidelines are clear on how to best position yourself.
Mouse and Keyboard Should be Comfortable to Use
You should not have to reach all-around your desk to move your mouse around on your computer screen. Many computer mice allow you to adjust the sensitivity to reduce how much you have to move the mouse to change its position on the screen. It’s encouraged to make using your mouse a low energy activity. It should also be positioned close to your keyboard so you can seamlessly switch between one and the other.
This is one of the most commonly overlooked areas for a couple of reasons. One, we tend to see lighting as a big picture element that doesn’t allow for individual control. You walk into a restaurant and you don’t like the lighting, you don’t think about asking the waiter to dim them down. Two, the way bad lighting strains our bodies is harder to spot.
The main problem that comes from bad lighting is eye strain. Eye strain is a real problem affecting over 80% of Americans. The symptoms include dry eyes, headaches, and blurred vision. Bad lighting is one of the leading contributors to eye strain.
We cannot get into all of the different ways that lighting can be managed and improved in an office. There are whole businesses that address this idea, and it’s almost a whole field of study in itself. However, there are two key takeaways:
Minimize the use of reflective surfaces:
This is more than just mirrors, glass, or metallics. If you have excellent lighting from the sun in your office, but it’s reflecting off a white desk right back into your face, you can quickly be overwhelmed. You want there to be enough light to work, but not much more than that.
Adjust lights and other objects to create indirect illumination:
Resources like this Canada government website do a great job of demonstrating this concept. With just a subtle shift in position, the light can go from providing great ambient illumination to beaming excess energy directly into your face. Both changes to your body position and lighting sources may be required.
Healthy Behaviors to Adopt
Now that we’ve identified some simple ways that you can assess and improve your workspace, let’s talk about simple behaviors you can start adopting to improve your work-life at home.
The 20-20-20 rule
This one is my favorite because it’s easy to remember, easy to do, and has great benefits. When you are sitting intently focused on a task with a computer screen shining in your face, your body makes minor shifts that can lead to issues. You start to blink less, you crane your neck forward, and you become locked on a single level of focus.
The 20-20-20 rule gives you a quick break to relax your eyes and reassert a healthy position. Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. That’s it. If you can spare 20 seconds to relax your eyes every 20 minutes, you can be a little healthier at work.
Stretching Really Is The Key
Everyone knows that they should be stretching more often, but so few of us make the time to do it. For many people, it’s a question of knowledge. If they had a clear program to follow, they would do it. For that, this set of stretches is designed for office workers. Don’t worry about doing the whole thing, you can just focus on a few for now. The important thing is to get started.
Others question the value. While there is still pending research on whether or not stretching actually reduces the occurrence of Musculoskeletal disorders, the connection to productivity is clear. Some employers have reported gains as high as 30% after instituting stretching programs in the office. You can start your own stretching program in the comfort of your own home.
Overall, if you start small, and focus more on making it regular than on an intense exercise, it brings some real benefits.
Limit Your Mobile Phone Time
For remote workers, their cellphone can become their best friend. There are few tools more enabling for an out-of-office lifestyle. However, they are really not designed for doing extensive projects. Try to limit the amount of time you spend executing projects through your mobile phone. If you use it for email, try to limit it to reading and short responses; safe the lengthier writing for your computer.
Stay Hydrated and Get Fresh Air
These are especially true for working from home, not just for life. Make sure that you are getting plenty of water when working from home, and give yourself time every hour or so to stroll around outside for a few minutes. However comfortable your work set up is, everyone needs a tiny break from their computer to stay healthy.
Next Article: What Ergonomic Products are Best for the Home Office
As you can see, there are plenty of ways for you to start improving your experience working from home. Setting up an established workspace that allows you to easily reassume stable, neutral body positions that minimize strain is valuable. There are several key considerations, such as arm height, lighting, and monitor distance when preparing your workspace.
Once that work is done, there are some simple behaviors you can start practicing. Stretching, hydration, walking, eye breaks, and limited mobile phone time are all solid core principles to maintain. The basic idea throughout is, don’t be afraid to step away from the screen. It’s not unprofessional, and it will actually boost your productivity.
In our next article, we will discuss what ergonomic products, such as chairs, computer mice, lights, and more that are the best options for creating a safe workspace for you at home.