Back in March, you set up your laptop on the dining room table and the kids took to the couch with their devices. You figured you could make do — this working and studying “remotely” would only last for a couple of months, right?
Knowing what we know now, it’s time to take a good look at your setup and get it right. This is not just about tidying up your kitchen table. You need to do this for the sake of your health.
In the last six months, I’ve heard increased complaints of lower back, neck, and shoulder pain. It is no coincidence that these are clients who are spending most of their time in front of a screen. The human body was not designed to sit still for hours at a time. On top of that, most home offices have us sitting in awkward positions that create strain.
Your body works most efficiently when the spine maintains its normal curves. Take a look at yourself from the side — or just picture yourself, standing comfortably. Your spine should curve in at the neck, out in the mid-back, and in again at the lower back — it should look like an “S.”
Sitting, especially at a desk, can cause the mid-back curve to be much larger. As your shoulders round forward, your S curve begins to look like a big letter “C.” The weight of your head and upper spine is no longer balanced above your spine. Your muscles, ligaments, discs, and nerves strain to hold that weight. The result is pain, stiffness, or numbness and tingling.
There’s a science to countering these problems. Home office ergonomics mostly boil down to doing the right thing — right angles, that is. Here are the three key ones to check as you revise your setup:
- Knees and hips: sit in a chair that allows your feet to rest flat on the floor. Your knees and hips should be at the same height, so that your hip and knee joints are at 90 degrees.
- Shoulders and arms: your upper arms should hang at your sides with your forearms parallel to the floor. So, a right angle at the elbow joints.
- Wrists: they should be aligned with the forearms, so that they’re not bent or extended.
Two other key alignments to check, essentially affecting your neck, shoulder, and upper back:
- Eyes: the top of your screen should be at or slightly below eye level, or a little lower if you wear bifocals.
- Ears: they should be positioned directly above your shoulders, not in front of them. This position allows you to maintain the normal S curve in your spine and to minimize stress on all the surrounding tissues.
Run through this list at your usual work spot and you’ll see the ways you’re off kilter. But if you’re a student or self-employed, corporate is not going to send a fancy chair and a convertible desk. So, here are some simple things you can do to improve your setup.
First, if your feet don’t reach the floor, add a book or box underneath them. If your knees are higher than your hips, add a firm cushion to your seat. If your desk or table is too high, you may need the seat cushion and the book. If you’re working on a desktop computer with a separate keyboard and monitor, it is easier to adjust and get to the guidelines. With a laptop, it is impossible to get both the ideal screen height and arm position. Compromise on something near the middle by getting as close as you can to good arm and wrist position and angling the screen back to minimize neck strain. Consider adding an external keyboard or screen to get more flexibility.
If you have a hard time sitting up straight, try to sit all the way back on your seat and place a small pillow or towel roll at your beltline to support your lower back where it curves inward.
Even the most ergonomically correct workstation in the world will not be good for you if you stay there for too long.
You can create a standing work area by placing your device on a countertop or bureau. I use a portable plastic file box on top of my dining table. The same guidelines for arm and neck positions apply. Alternate between your standing and sitting stations several times a day.
If you have a budget for serious upgrades, look into a good quality office chair with adjustable height and lumbar support. Also, if you have the space, a convertible desk will allow you to alternate between sitting and standing without picking up and moving to another spot.
My best advice is the simplest and doesn’t cost a thing: take frequent breaks. They can be short. Set a timer for 30 to 45 minutes as a reminder to get up, walk around, do some stretching, windmill your arms backward, or roll your wrists, shake out your arms and legs. Your body — and, as a result, your work — stand to benefit.