The COVID-19 pandemic has made working from home an unplanned requirement for millions of workers throughout the world. As time progresses, companies are discovering they no longer have the need for large office buildings to house large numbers of employees. Many employees are also discovering that they are equally productive at home and don’t need to be in the office every day. We are living in a time where flexibility, freedom and work-life balance are top priority for all and working from home, in some capacity, is here to stay indefinitely.
Although many are appreciative of their newfound WFH freedom and its advantages, my clients are realizing their makeshift home offices are not conducive for prolonged work and are just not suitable for long term use. They’re reporting increased levels of discomfort all over their body – particularly in the shoulders, neck, hips, mid back & lower back. Many are experiencing headaches, brain fog and eye strain almost every day. These symptoms are associated with strained joints, muscles & ligaments that occur from prolonged poor posture and positioning. So how do we prevent & combat this discomfort? Having the right equipment and the correct physical setup at your workstation are critical to staying happy, healthy and pain free.
What does an ideal work from home setup look like?
- Begin by positioning your arms so your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. If you don’t have an adjustable chair you should sit on a cushion, pillow or folded towels to raise your seat height enough to keep your forearms parallel to the floor.
- Your eyes should be level with the top of the monitor. Books or shoe boxes can be used to lift the monitor so that the screen can be read without straining your neck or looking down.
- If you fully straighten your arms out front, your monitor should rest at your fingertips. Placing the monitor too close or too far can lead to discomfort in the neck, shoulders, and lead to eye strain and headaches.
- Keep both feet flat on the floor. If necessary, use a box, footstool or books to position them correctly.
- If you prefer a stand-up desk, a kitchen counter may also be a good substitute. While research is still in its early stages, a ratio of 1:1 or 2:1 sitting versus standing time appears to be optimal for comfort and energy levels, without affecting productivity. That means for every 1 to 2 hours you sit in your office, 1 hour should be spent standing. Try to alternate between sitting and standing every 30 to 60 minutes.
- Similarly, an anti fatigue mat absorbs some of the pressure when using a stand-up desk. If that’s not available, stand on carpet or a rug instead of a hard floor.
- Use shades or other window coverings to keep direct sunlight off the screen, if necessary. If you’re seeing glare, you’re likely to squint, creating tension in your eyes and causing headaches.
- If you don’t have a document holder at home, position a large stand-up picture frame next to the monitor and use tape or a binder clip to keep documents in place.
- When a headset isn’t available, use earphones or put your phone on speaker so you aren’t bending your neck while on a call.
- Many of us also need to use more than one monitor. If both screens are used equally, arrange them so you’re looking directly in the middle of both. If you use one monitor more than the other, the dominant monitor should be directly in front of you and the secondary should be placed slightly off to the side.
What items can we use to create an ideal WFH space?
- Adjustable desk chair: You want a chair that’s as adjustable as possible. Every desk chair should have an adjustable seat height to set you up for the 90-degree bends at your elbows, hips and knees. Not every chair has armrests, but if you choose one that does, make sure they fit under your desk or table. Otherwise, you need to lean forward or hold your arms at an uncomfortable angle in order to reach the keyboard and mouse.
- Laptop stand and external keyboard or mouse: Add a laptop stand and external monitor to your WFH space. These items can help make sure that the screen is at the proper height and distance from your eyes. Hours spent looking down at a laptop screen are a common cause of neck pain. Additionally, adding an external keyboard & mouse frees you to raise your laptop to the proper height for your eyes. This enables you to maintain a neutral position for your head and neck as well as that all-important 90-degree bend in your elbows.
- Footrest: Your feet should be resting on the floor, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. But if your feet don’t touch, a footstool can help. Look for a comfortable footrest that’s able to tilt forward or backward – it’s usually more comfortable than a basic flat stool!
- Keyboard & Wrist Rest: Pain in the wrists and hands is not uncommon among people who spend hours each day using a keyboard. The way to avoid wrist pain is to keep your wrists in neutral, or a flat position, for as long as possible. You don’t want your wrists flexed or extended in any way. If your setup at home does not allow for your wrists to be flat, a wrist rest can help in this endeavor. It’s really the lower palm of your hand, not your wrist, that should be in contact with the rest. As with footstools, wrist rests come in different designs and materials. The gel wrist wrests work well because they evenly distribute pressure, but don’t get so cozy that you wind up placing more pressure on your wrists than needed.
- Headset/Earphones: If you spend a lot of time on the phone and haven’t invested in a headset yet, now may be the time. The key advantage of a headset is that it allows you to keep your head in a neutral position, minimizing neck pain and freeing your hands up for multitasking.
General Work From Home Tips Include
- Check in and listen to your body. You should never feel strain or discomfort when working. Your body will tell you when something doesn’t feel right and many times a small adjustment will make a big difference.
- Be aware of your posture & body position. After 15 minutes of sitting or standing in the same place, many people start to slouch. Check in with yourself often to feel how your body is positioned and readjust if you need to. Set a timer on your computer or phone if you need an extra reminder.
- Stand up and move around frequently. Even if you’re comfortable, you should never sit in one position for more than an hour. Getting up and moving around every 30 to 40 minutes is recommended. It also reminds you to reset your posture when you go back to work.
- Don’t reach far for your mouse, keyboard & documents. Things like your phone, pen and paper and keyboard should be close enough that you can grab them without having to reach. Your tools should always work for you, not the other way around.
- Use your eyes to look down, not your neck. When working on a laptop or phone, most people tilt their heads forward toward their device. Think about avoiding wasted movement, including constantly moving your head up and down.
- When it comes to adapting your workspace, get creative! No matter where you’re working, you can make your workspace body friendly.
- Take movement and activity breaks!
What activities can we perform at our desk to avoid discomfort & fatigue?
1. Seated Piriformis Stretch
Sit at the edge of the chair with your feet flat on the floor
Cross your leg and place your ankle on your opposite thigh close to the knee
Place one hand on your heel and opposite hand on your thigh close to the knee
Gently add pressure from your right hand to your right thigh, pressing towards the floor for a greater stretch
If you have more flexible hips, lean your chest forward to increase the stretch even more!
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointed out
Send your hips back and lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor while keeping your chest lifted
If you can maintain a straight spinal position, you can squat deeper for added benefit
3. Standing Quad and Hip Flexor Stretch
Stand tall while holding your desk or chair with one hand
Grab the front of your foot and pull it towards your butt as far as you can
Bring your knee further back while maintaining a straight spine will increase the stretch dramatically for increased benefit
4. Spinal Rotation
Sit upright, keeping your feet flat on the floor
Twist to one side at the core, keeping your hips square and spine tall
If you’re more flexible, cross one leg over the other to increase the stretch intensity
5. Upper Back Extension
Place arms behind the head with fingers interlocked
Extend back over the chair while engaging your core and abdominals. Be sure not to allow the lower back to extend!
Optional: Use a ball or pillow and place it midway down the back prior to extending backwards
6. Seated Hamstring Stretch
Rest your heel on the floor, keeping your leg straight
Gently lean forward until a stretch is felt behind your knee/thigh
You can increase the stretch by pointing your ankle and toes upwards towards your body
Article by Dr. Dylann Craig Germann, physical therapist at Eleven Eleven Wellness Center and owner of Impact Physical Therapy. For more information or to schedule an ergonomic workplace evaluation, text/call Impact Physical Therapy at (516) 603-9024 or email ImpactPTNY@gmail.com.