Working from home? Don’t sacrifice your health or comfort.

By Russ Levanway, President

A lot of us started working from home last March without any idea how long the situation would go on. Maybe we thought it was temporary; everything would be back to normal in a couple of months or so, right? That’s what we hoped. So we set up our home workspaces the best we could on short notice: a table or countertop, a chair from the dining room, and our laptop. For the time being, that was good enough. Why invest in a work area at home if it’s only going to last a few weeks?

Well, weeks turned into months, and many of us are still working at our make-do workspaces. The result? Lots of aching backs, wrists, shoulders, and necks.

I’m not an expert in workplace ergonomics, but I’ve worked in the computer field for a while and know that when a person is on their computer all day, they are at risk of injury from poor setup. And if this is a threat to an adult’s health, it’s doubly threatening to the health and development of our children, who are also on their computers all day now for remote learning. No one wants this strange period to start a lifetime of wrist and back injuries for their child.

Move it or lose it

Think about your professional workspace — the one you used to work in, not the one in your home. Your company likely set you up with a professional chair, which you set to the correct height, a desk set at the right height, etc. At home, it’s unlikely you’ve thought about proper ergonomics the way you do in your office.  Also, think about your work schedule before COVID.  Were you at your desk all day, every day?  Or did you break it up with meetings, travel, etc?

Take it from me, an injury can really sneak up on you. I have a stand-up desk at CIO headquarters, and I’ve logged some serious hours there. But I’d break up my desk-bound time with other activities, too: attending meetings, walking around and checking on people, driving to one of our other locations, grabbing lunch at a restaurant, or sitting down to eat in the break room. A constant flow of movement kept me from being in one place for too long.

Then fast-forward to working from home every day. I set up a stand-up desk at home and stood at it for 10 hours at a time. Lo and behold, my back started to hurt… a lot.  When I finally visited the doctor, he told me I had a herniated disk from too much pressure on my lower back. The problem was standing still for so long. Turns out my natural work schedule protected my spine. Even though I had taken the effort to have a reasonably well set up work area, I hadn’t really thought about how the new work from home schedule would keep me in one spot for long hours.

Simple ergonomic solutions for working from home

In your home office space, look at the location and positioning of everything around you, both from a typing perspective and from the perspective of engaging in video calls.

  • No double chins

Chances are you’re working on a laptop, which means the screen is below chin height, so you spend your whole day hunched over looking down. Not only does this look very unflattering on a video call, but it also puts a lot of strain on your neck and shoulders, too. It will be better for your body if your screen is set up roughly 2 feet away from your eyes and the top of your screen is at eye level when you look straight ahead.  As a bonus, you’ll look better on camera!

There’s a pretty simple solution to this problem even if you don’t have an external monitor: get hold of an external keyboard and mouse. That way, you can prop your laptop on a stack of books for proper height, and you can still type and use your mouse in the proper position. You’ll experience better ergonomics all around for just a small investment.

  • Get some space

On a laptop, the space between keys is less than that on a full-sized keyboard. We forget this sometimes, but laptops aren’t intended to be used all day, every day.  If you work off a laptop that much, you should have an external keyboard, mouse, and monitor.

  • Bend properly

Look at the placement of your keyboard now. Basic ergonomics say that you should have a natural ‘L’ shape in your arms (roughly a 90-degree angle) when you type. Too often I see people with a sharper angle in their arms, usually because the keyboard is up too high or too low. Fortunately, these conditions are usually adjustable.

Play with the height of your chair or your sitting position to get that solid perpendicular 90-degree angle in your arms as you type, with your elbows naturally falling at your sides. This also applies to people working at a stand-up desk: the angle of your arms is critical, so make adjustments as needed.

  • Move around

Even with a reasonably good set up at home, you could end up with an injury that your natural work schedule in the office protected you from.  Don’t make the mistake I did!

  • Do it for the kids

I’ve been watching my daughters at home doing zoom school all day.  Their school is fantastic and the teachers are doing their level best to give them a great education in unusual circumstances.  Still, the girls are working on these tiny little Chromebooks half the size of a normal laptop for multiple hours at a time. The keyboards are cramped, the display is small. We have tried to set them up ergonomically, but it’s not an ideal setup. They have good desk height, screen height, and chair height, so that’s a start, but it’s not adequate or up to the challenge of supporting them for multiple hours each day for months on end. If school at home continues much longer, you might want to look at longer-term ergonomic setups for your kids, too.

Pay now or pay (much more) later?

Ergonomic issues for employees are exploding across businesses right now. Is it any wonder? Our homes just aren’t conducive to long hours of work without the proper elements to support us. What once looked like a short-term situation is shaping up to be a longer-term one for many people now. Even if you think you’ll be working from home for just a little while longer, there’s a good chance we’ll all have to retreat to our home offices more often anyway — that could be the new normal.

It’s not a massive investment to buy a new keyboard, monitor, or chair, or to position them at the proper height. It’s important to me that our own staff have proper resources and ergonomics, even when they’re working from home. And why not? I’d rather pay for these elements now than pay for the long-term cost of ergonomic injuries – workers comp, absences for physical therapy, all-around added stress, and lower productivity.

As an employee, are you treating the work-at-home situation like a long-term or a short-term setup? And for business owners: are you making sure that your company or organization is helping to provide the financial pieces and tech pieces for employees to work ergonomically? Remember, you can pay now or pay later.

Additional resource for more in-depth guidance on a workplace setup: