SET-UP YOUR ERGONOMIC HOME OFFICE

By Caryn Stretton

South African Home Ergonomics: 7 Tips For Working Safely At Home 

Modern lifestyles take their toll when it comes to general health. Most jobs require us to spend at least 8 hours of the day behind a computer, and more importantly – sitting. People spend too much time at their desks in a passive state. According to research published in the magazine Annals of Internal Medicine, we spend most of our working hours without any physical activity. We are sitting to eat our meals, sitting to drive, sitting to work at our desk, and then sitting on the couch for TV in the evenings.

On the one hand, technology really helps people in everyday work. For example, when we use technology, computers, and smartphones to deal with more work in less time. On the other hand, too much sitting leads to a bad physical condition and often many problems such as poor posture, back pain, or serious diseases such as obesity, heart problems, and diabetes.

The world has moved to a reality where many people are working from home and social distancing measures require a new normal.  This means more and more people are working at a location other than their business office. 

Start Thinking About Your Home Office Space Ergonomically

Since many South Africans are now working from home for the first time, getting the correct home office setup presents a challenging problem. Sometimes space within the home is limited and office space may double as a dining space, kitchen counter, or general use area.

In instances where a desk and chair are present, they may not have the adjustability needed to provide a suitable long-term work environment. When setting up the home work environment remember to implement ergonomics basics; such as an Exemplis Corp study conducted in 2014 showed that an ergonomic office setup motivates people by increasing performance and overall wellbeing.

Ergotherapy has long since seen the need to adapt workstations to avoid repetitive strain injuries and to ease existing conditions, like back pain, and optimise workspaces to bring about enhanced productivity.

Below is advice based on physiotherapy, anatomy, and physiology, and human kinetics and ergonomics basics, aimed to assist in designing the most optimum workspace within a home environment in order to work with ease and increase productivity. 

 

#1. Choose The Location Where You Work Carefully

 

  • Make sure that you select a dedicated work area in your home. This could be an empty or spare bedroom that you convert to a home office. If you are pressed for space, you can set up a desk for your computer and office supplies. Regardless of space or location, establish an area of your home where you will work, and commit to working in this space every day.
  • Be sure your workspace is quiet so you can focus on the task at hand.
  • Try to set up desk space with clear foot-room, and a clear organised surface for your laptops and notes, etc.

 

#2. Choose A Suitably Comfortable Chair

 

  • Find a comfortable chair option that will provide you with back support in an upright and slightly reclined position.
  • Make sure the chair is high enough for the desk space which you have chosen.
  • Hips should be all the way back in the chair and the bottom tips of the shoulder blades should make contact with the backrest. 

 

Look Out For The Following Issues:

Is the front of the seat pan hitting the back of your knees?

  • This can result in less back support or can result in contact stress against the back of the knees.
  • Look for an alternative chair with a smaller seat or add a firm cushion behind your back to push you slightly forward without losing back support.

Does the edge of the seat cut into the back of your legs?

  • When a seat is too short for the user it cuts off blood flow and causes compression in the thighs. This can create neural and pain issues in the lower back and legs.
  • Look for a firm pillow to sit on to “extend” the seat. Ideally you only want 3-4 finger spaces from behind the knee to the edge of the seat.

Is the chair lacking back support?

  • If the inward curve of your low back is not supported by the chair or if your back has to round outwards to touch the chair, you may not have enough support and may get a painful back after sitting for a while. The spine should be supported and in a relaxed position when working.
  • Consider adding a small pillow or folded towel to provide additional lumbar support. Make sure the lumbar support is not pushing you too far forward though – your hips and shoulders should still be in contact with the backrest!

Do your feet not touch the floor?

  • If your feet are unsupported it is difficult to maintain a good sitting posture and there will be more stress on your low back and thighs. Rather have the chair higher in order to be at the right height of the desk surface and use a footrest or alternative (sturdy binder, box, pack of copy paper) to support your feet and ensure you have a stable base of support.

Are your shoulders tight and aching?

  • If possible, use a chair with armrests at the same height as the desk.
  • Rest the arms on the armrests to offload the pressure on your shoulders and upper spine.
  • Otherwise move the chair extra close and under the desk so that the arms can rest on the desk space.
  • Elbows should be at 90 degrees.

Why should you invest in an ergonomic chair?

  • Studies repeatedly show that a personalised adjustable ergonomic chair reduces lower back pain in computer workers by improving work-related sitting posture.
  • Studies also show that patients with previous back problems see a significant decrease in their pain response over time, after switching to an ergonomic chair. In addition, users reported improved productivity and overall well-being.

(International Ergonomics Association, 2017).

#3. The Surface Where You Work Plays A Role As Well

 

  • Whether you are in a home office, at the kitchen counter or dinner table, etc., try to position your work surface or yourself so that your keyboard and mouse are at elbow height.
  • Your elbows should be relaxed and ideally on a desk surface or armrest of the chair and the forearms should be horizontal/parallel to the ground.
  • Make sure your keyboard is squarely in front of your naval. No twisting or rotation of the body should be used.

Look Out For The Following Issues:

Is the work surface too high?

  • This can cause you to elevate your shoulder resulting in increased tension or overuse discomfort in the shoulders and upper back.
  • Try sitting up higher by putting a cushion or some towels on your chair to bring you up to the work surface, and if that lifts your feet off the floor, add a footrest to support your feet.
  • If there’s a slightly lower surface around go for it!

 Is the work surface too low?

  • This can cause you to slouch or hunch to reach down to the computer when typing or mousing. 
  • Consider propping your equipment on a raised surface (textbooks, boxes, etc).
  • Make sure your laptop keyboard is not too high which then puts your arms and wrists under strain.

  

 

#4. Position Your Keyboard And Mouse Strategically

 

 

  • Firstly, you should be using a peripheral keyboard and mouse. If you are typing directly from your laptop it is harder to use good working postures.
  • Assuming you have both a keyboard and mouse, they should be positioned close enough so that you are not having to lean or reach in an awkward way to use them.
  • Reaching forward with the elbows straight and wrists bent backward is a common reaching posture.
  • Winging of the elbows, or side bent wrists are also other awkward postures we might see that can contribute to overuse discomfort.

Look Out For The Following Issues: 

Do you only have a peripheral mouse and type directly on your laptop?

  • If you have the keyboard at a good typing height, then the laptop screen is likely too low and could be causing hunching.  
  • Consider purchasing a basic keyboard that you can plug into the laptop along with the mouse.

Is the keyboard too wide, putting the mouse further from you?

  • If you find yourself reaching out excessively wide to use the mouse, this can put stress on the shoulder, wrist, or hand over time.  
  • Consider a compact keyboard to keep the mouse within closer reach. These are available with or without a number pad, depending on your needs.

 

 #5. Get An Adjustable Monitor

 

  • Ideally, we should all be working off a large size monitor at eye level. However, modern work patterns see one working solely on a small laptop screen for most of our workday. Laptops can cause a number of repetitive strain injuries as the screen is simply too low.

    Look Out For The Following Issues: 

    Is the monitor too low?

    • This results in neck flexion and hunching to view the screen.  Laptops can cause a number of repetitive strain injuries as the screen is simply too low.
    • Be sure to use a peripheral keyboard and mouse (bring them from work if needed) and then just raise the laptop up on some books.
    • The “Google” search bar should be at eye level.  For a truly ergonomic setup, consider a height-adjustable laptop stand or a monitor arm. These can help ease neck strain, headaches, and shoulder issues.

    Is the monitor too far away?

    • If you find you cannot see the small laptop screen and are squinting or leaning forward to view it, then you lose the upper back support you should be getting from your chair which causes spinal pain. 
    • Try pulling the laptop closer or enlarging the font if you cannot pull it nearer.

    #6. Keep Home Office Lighting Nice And Bright

     

    Is the light coming through the windows around you an issue?

    • This can cause you to squint at the screen in an awkward posture and increases eye strain. As the sunlight changes throughout the day, you might also have varied brightness on your workspace.
    • Theraspecs showed in one study, that nearly three-quarters of migraine attacks within the workplace were light-triggered. (Theraspecs Company 2017).
    • See if you can position yourself and equipment perpendicular to a window OR adjust your blinds to help reduce any glare. 
    • DON’T just turn the laptop screen though, that will cause you to work with your neck twisted.

    Are you experiencing eye fatigue or eye strain?

    • Environmental lighting and the computer screen are all different at home compared to an office environment.
    • To reduce eye fatigue and nerve strain ensure you are taking breaks away from the screen by following the 20/20/20 guidelines (every 20 minutes, take your eyes off the screen for 20 seconds, focus on something 20 meters away).
    • You may also want to consider adjusting your monitor settings as well to reduce eye fatigue (brightness, contrast, colour, etc.). 

    #7. Don’t Forget To Move Around Periodically

     

    • Regular movement is key for healthy bodies as well as reducing musculoskeletal risks that arise from static work postures and repetition. Look to incorporate movement as often as possible throughout the day.

    You should move every 20 mins.

    • This can be a quick exercise like a shoulder or wrist stretch, standing up out of your chair, and reaching upwards to unload the discs in our back, walking to get some coffee or water in the kitchen or even some ankle pumps to encourage lower body circulation.

     

    Over and above each 20-minute break, you should stand at least hourly.

    • Static postures are hard on the body and result in reduced circulation and muscle fatigue. 
    • Stand up every hour and give yourself a quick movement break.  Walk to the kitchen to get a drink of water or do a backstretch or look out of the window and take a few deep breaths. 
    • Consider investing in a sit-to-stand solution. This means you can continue working whilst stretching the legs and having a great posture.

     

    A Carr et al 2015 study found the below outcomes:

    The Benefits Of Less Sedentary Lifestyles, In Percentages 

     After being given the option to sit and stand when working, users report:

    • 84% – Less fatigue
    • 83% – Feel better overall
    • 62% – Improved comfort
    • 60% – More energy