Just as you're adapting to this new (and hopefully very temporary) "normal" of working from home, your body has to adapt as well. Our makeshift, jury-rigged home work stations are probably less than ideal, and our bodies may quickly and painfully begin to miss our ergonomic chairs, our big monitors, our adjustable desks. Because we may be at this a while, it's important to build a work area that puts you in the right physical and emotional position to do your work and stay healthy.
When we think of working from home safely, ergonomics is probably the first thing most people think of. It is, of course, more complicated than that, but it’s a good place to start. So what are some good rules of thumb?
We asked our ergoexperts how to design a home office, now that many of us are working from home for the foreseeable future. This is what Dr. Meagan Peeters-Gebler and Dr. Brianna Droessler-Aschliman told us about building a work station that works for your body as well.
As best you can, try to mimic a normal work day for your body, says Meagan. Stand if you typically stand. Sit if sitting is more normal. Find a way to raise and lower your computer, if you work at an adjustable desk. Deciding to sit all day because you normally stand may sound good, but your body may not appreciate a sudden and dramatic change.
That doesn’t mean you can’t improve on your work posture, of course! While your work station may be static, your home work station doesn’t have to be. A milk crate or cardboard box can make your desk adjustable, allowing you to stand up sometimes and sit others. Which leads us nicely to….
As Bri says, this is a great time to develop some new habits. For many of us, a whole lot has changed — our work environment, the hours we’re keeping, etc. And that makes it easier to change long-ingrained habits and replace them with better ones.
For example, many of us sit down and don’t move anything but our eyes and our fingers… for hours. Develop the habit of getting up once an hour to stretch, walk around, even step outside for some fresh air.
And, Bri suggests, now’s a great time to hydrate more. The bathroom is your own! It’s closer and far more private, so there’s no excuse for not drinking more water. It’s really good for your body, especially in menopause.
If you’re like me, your work computer is a laptop. These are great for being able to move around, but ergnomically, they’re not ideal. If the keyboard is at a good height for your hands, chances are you’re looking down at the monitor. Since the ideal for a monitor is to have it up at eye level — too high for optimal typing — you’re generally disadvantaging either your wrists or your neck.
One solution is either a separate monitor or a separate keyboard that can be linked to your laptop. That allows you to get both eyes and wrists in the right position.
What is the “right position”?
Well, says Meagan, the first thing is to find the right chair. It should be comfortable and allow you to get your hips slightly higher than your knees. You should have an upright trunk and a nice, neutral curve in your lower back so you’re not slouched. Your feet should be on the floor. That last is quite important. Let the feet-on-the-floor requirement help dictate the chair you choose. If that means using pillows or props to fit, that’s fine.
Then add a standing option with a box or shelf or crate that allows you to move everything up, and vary between them. Remember when standing to try to keep your weight balanced between your feet so you’re not putting the majority of the strain on one hip at a time. A mat under your feet can also help, as can wearing good, supportive shoes (NOT heels).
Once you have your standing and sitting options, you can build your workstation to fit.
Your monitor should be about two feet from your eyes and at or slightly below eye level. You may be accustomed to a much larger monitor at your work station, so if two feet feels too far, zoom in your screen or increase the font sizes. Don’t peer at your screen or jut your chin forward, as neither of those is good for your body. Be sure you have plenty of light, but adjust it so you’re not dealing with glare.
Keyboard and mouse should allow for your elbows to be at a 90 degree angle so your forearms are level with the floor. Ideally, your forearms are supported by an armrest of some sort. Your upper arms should dangle straight down from your shoulders, as vertical as possible. Wrist needs to be neutral so fingers are slightly lower than the wrist, not reaching upwards.
What you’re looking for is the middle range of all the joints so the connective tissue isn’t being stretched one way or another for extended periods.
Says Meagan, muscular trigger points (where the pain is) can start to form in as little as 10 minutes of inactivity in the wrong position. Imagine what an entire day in the wrong position is doing to you! Try to find a few healthy positions, vary them as needed, and be sure to stretch and walk around at least every hour. “Wiggle, move, and multi-task,” she advises.
Yes, those places are wonderfully comfortable, but they’re too soft and not supportive, says Bri. They are poor choices for sustained periods of time, like a workday.
Not only is the bed just not a good choice for your body, it also invites work into an environment that should be reserved “for sex and for sleeping,” Bri says. If you shut off your work computer and then roll over and shut your eyes, it could very possibly end up disrupting your sleep.
Keeping firm boundaries between work and home can be really important to health, Bri adds. It can also be important to your productivity. If you’re working in bed, you may have to fight off the urge to lounge or even nap. These are not necessarily bad things, but having a dedicated workspace may help you maintain your dedicated headspace.
If you’re not the only one working from home, you may find you bump heads a bit: one person is trying to have a video conference while the other is on the phone or following an online exercise video, for example.
If you can’t physically separate, agreeing on a schedule could help. Maybe you only set meetings for certain hours and noisy activity happens outside those hours. Childcare may need the same flexibility. Setting a schedule you both agree on can help reduce frustrations. Headphones are game-changers, so make sure everyone has a working pair. (Bonus: headphones are much better for your neck than trying to pin your phone between ear and shoulder!)
The more you can split schedules, the easier your workdays might be, though some overlap for meals and “together” time should also be a priority.
Get some exercise. Exercise is great for stress relief, inviting better sleep at night, and might be a good way to get some time free of your housemates. A walk during your lunch break or instead of your daily commute is a great way to use that time to your advantage. Plus, if you have a dog, your dog will love the extra time with you.
Can’t get out? Got a treadmill or exercise bike underneath a pile of laundry somewhere? Can you prop your laptop on there and use the exercise machine during meetings? You don’t have to go fast or do “hill work,” just moving when you ordinarily wouldn’t is great.
This is a tough time, so cut yourself some slack. Is this the opportunity you’ve been waiting for to adopt or foster a furry friend? Are you sleeping more? Taking more breaks or chatting with friends on Skype? That’s OK. Your mental health matters too, so focus some time and effort there as well. Be kind to yourself and those around you; we may be in this for the long haul.
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