Telecommuting appears to be the ideal occasion to switch to a “anything goes” mentality, particularly when it comes to your seating arrangements. After all, addressing work correspondences while reclining in bed or on your sofa is as relaxing as it gets.
However, if your work-from-home situation is long-term or your job has adopted a hybrid office-home work model since the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be in trouble if you don’t establish the right setup. Naturally, you can’t simply reproduce your office workspace at home. And if you don’t have a designated home office, you’re not exactly poised for success. “Working remotely, for the majority of individuals, is not optimal for ergonomics,” states Amir Khastoo, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center’s Performance Therapy Center in Santa Monica, California.
What Are Ergonomics?
What exactly are ergonomics? At its most fundamental level, ergonomics entails “tailoring a job to an individual,” according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Having an ergonomic setup can help reduce muscle fatigue and increase productivity, while also minimizing the frequency and severity of work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, muscle strains, and lower back injuries.
Now, contemplate the workspace setup at your office (or, if you’re fully remote, your most recent in-office workspace). Granted, there were days when you would’ve given anything to work from the comfort of a plush sofa, tapping away with your feet up and your computer on your lap. But there’s a valid reason why your office provided a cubicle instead of a couch — and it’s not just because your colleagues didn’t want to see your bare feet.
Reclining, whether on a couch or a bed, while working can ultimately lead to musculoskeletal problems, particularly when it becomes the norm during your continued work-from-home experience, explains Khastoo. “Your sofa and bed, although comfortable in the moment, are unsuitable for spending eight hours a day,” agrees Pamela Geisel, M.S., C.S.C.S., manager of performance services at the Hospital for Special Surgery.
Ideally, experts suggest recreating your usual office setup at home. However, in reality, you may have budgetary constraints, limited space, or children constantly around you — or all three. Whatever the circumstances may be, you can still establish an ergonomic telecommuting environment. Simply scroll down and commence rearranging…your weary body will express its gratitude.
The Correct Work-From-Home Position
Regardless of where you are working from home — whether it’s in a designated office space or at the kitchen counter — there is a specific posture that can reduce your risk of experiencing pain:
- Your feet should be planted firmly on the ground with your thighs parallel and knees bent at a 90-degree angle, according to Geisel.
- Your elbows should also be bent at a 90-degree angle and positioned close to your body — not pressed against your ribs but comfortably hanging below your shoulders.
- Your shoulders should be relaxed and pulled back, as Geisel suggests. “This should naturally occur if your elbows are at a 90-degree angle and your monitor is properly positioned,” she notes. (More details on that below.)
- You should be seated all the way back in your chair, and the rest of your body should be “stacked,” with your shoulders aligned with your hips and your head aligned with your shoulders. “This will help maintain proper alignment of your joints,” explains Geisel. Ensuring that your joints are properly aligned is crucial because if they aren’t, it could throw off your posture and lead to musculoskeletal injuries.
How to Arrange Your Desk and Chair for Improved Posture
Considering that the surface you’ll be working on at home is likely not adjustable, you may need to make some adjustments to your chair to achieve the correct form. However, there’s a small catch: Khastoo points out that many desks and tables are set up for taller individuals. If you are on the shorter side, making some modifications is recommended.
If you have an office-style chair, adjust the height until your thighs are parallel to the ground and your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle, as suggested by Geisel. However, this may impact the position of your feet. If your feet do not reach the floor, it’s advisable to use a footstool or prop up your feet with a rest (or even a stack of oversized books) to ensure that they are flat against the surface. Again, the height should be adjusted to achieve a 90-degree angle with your knees, according to Geisel.
If you don’t have an adjustable-height chair but need to elevate yourself, Khastoo recommends placing a firm, thick pillow under your buttocks for added height. The goal remains the same: to have your knees at a 90-degree angle, keeping your feet flat and positioning your keyboard within easy reach. If your thighs lightly touch the underside of the desk and you feel comfortable, you should be good to go, adds Khastoo.
The Ideal Position for Your Arms, Elbows, and Hands
Once your chair is adjusted to the correct height, it’s time to consider the positioning of your arms and hands. If your chair has armrests, that’s great: “Armrests can help provide support for your upper extremities,” which, in turn, can assist in avoiding slouching and excessive strain on your upper back and neck, explains Khastoo.
Armrests can additionally facilitate the facilitation of bending one’s elbows to a 90-degree angle and sustain them in such position,” he contributes.
No armrests? No worries. Simply adjust the height of your chair and the position of your computer so that your elbows are bent at — yup, you probably guessed it — 90 degrees. You also want to try to keep your elbows close to your body while you work in order to achieve the correct posture, says Geisel. At the same time, your hands should be able to easily reach your keyboard — which should be about an arm’s-length distance away — and your palms should slightly hover over the keyboard while you type.
Don’t Forget Your Lower Back
Once you’ve got your desk at the right height, your feet placement sorted, and your upper extremities situated, you can focus on your lower back. While it sounds somewhat basic, try thinking about your “sit bones” (i.e. the rounded bones at the bottom of your pelvis), recommends Geisel. “Sitting on your sit bones sounds silly, but we need to ensure we do this,” she says. Why? Because it helps ensure you maintain good posture — which again, can help prevent musculoskeletal pain. (Stretching can also be of great assistance.)
You’ll also want to scoot all the way back in your chair so that your buttocks is reaching the backrest. It’s okay if your entire back isn’t flush against the chair, because your lower back (aka lumbar spine) naturally has a curve to it and it doesn’t necessarily need to be pushed up against the back of your chair for proper alignment, explains Khastoo.
That being said, having a low-back or lumbar pillow to fill in that area can also enhance lumbar support — which is important for preventing lower back pain. If you’re using an office-style chair, the chair’s design should help take care of this for you, thanks to built-in lumbar support that’s made to curve with your back, says Khastoo. But if you’re using a regular kitchen chair or any chair with a flat backrest, you can roll up a towel or invest in a lumbar roll such as Fellowes I-Spire Series Lumbar Pillow (Buy It, $33, staples.com) to use in the small of your back, suggests Geisel.
The Optimal Computer Placement
“When setting up your monitor [or laptop], you want it to be at an arm’s-length distance away and elevated so your eyes are in line with the top of the screen,” says Geisel. (Keep in mind that “arm distance” here is more like forearm distance, i.e. your arm distance with your arms bent at 90 degrees.) Your eyes should be in line with the top of your screen to help prevent neck pain from looking up or down at it.
Got a display screen that’s too low? You can place it on top of a book or two to help elevate it for optimal eye position, says Geisel. And, if you’re using a laptop, you may consider getting a Bluetooth-enabled keyboard such as the Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard (Buy It, $30, target.com) so you can raise your display screen without having to type with your hands/arms in the air, she recommends.
Check Your Shoulders, Neck, and Head
Before starting work for the day, check your posture by sitting tall and going through your upper body’s positioning: make sure your shoulders are over your hips, your neck is back and straight (but not curved inward), and your head is aligned directly above your neck, says Geisel. “Shoulders should also be relaxed and pulled back — this should occur naturally if your elbows remain at 90 degrees and your display screen is properly positioned,” she adds.
You may find it helpful to roll your shoulders back throughout the day to prevent yourself from slouching, recommends Khastoo. Some slouching is inevitable, which is why you should try checking your posture every 20 minutes or so and correcting it as needed, suggests Geisel. Now that you’re not surrounded by coworkers (except maybe your roommate or partner), don’t hesitate to set an alarm for every 20 minutes to remind yourself to check your posture.
Don’t Forget to Incorporate Movement Throughout the Day
How you sit when you’re working is important, but ensuring that you’re not stuck in that position for too long is also crucial. “We’re not designed to be sitting for extended periods,” says Khastoo. “You need to get up to get your blood flowing, and ensure that your muscles have an opportunity to move,” he notes. Sitting for prolonged periods can also compress your lower back spine, so taking regular breaks can provide much-needed relief, explains Khastoo.
“It’s challenging for many people to work from home right now, but making sure that you move and aren’t just sitting static for three to four hours at a time is one of the best ways to prevent injuries and maintain your body,” notes Khastoo. (Maybe also try an under-desk bike?) Remember: Those injuries can result in everything from developing carpal tunnel syndrome to chronic back or neck pain.
At the very least, you’re bound to have to go to the bathroom (hey, nature calls!) or refill your water glass (hydration is crucial). So make the most of these movement breaks by loosening your muscles to increase blood circulation or even taking a stroll around the living room to accumulate some extra steps, encourages Geisel.
Take a pause from your job and engage in the task of expanding your physique – especially your thoracic region and pelvic area – and your body will express its appreciation,” she contributes.
Maintaining Proper Alignment at Your Standing Desk
In case you missed it, sitting for extended periods of time isn’t particularly beneficial for your health, which is why there are pre-made standing desks available for purchase that you can invest in for your home office setup. However, if you prefer not to spend a lot of money on a new device, you can create your own by stacking thick coffee table books or cookbooks on your kitchen counter, and then placing your monitor and keyboard or laptop on top. Before you continue with your work, ensure that your feet are positioned hip-width apart and that your hips are directly stacked above them, followed by your shoulders, neck, and head. It is also important to evenly distribute your body weight between both of your feet.
“I highly suggest wearing supportive shoes and possibly standing on a softer surface instead of a hardwood floor,” mentions Geisel. Otherwise, it can cause unnecessary strain on the muscles in your feet and potentially affect your posture. Oh, and the same principles apply when it comes to the placement of your elbows and monitor, she adds.
If you begin to experience any discomfort, it is crucial to listen to your body. “Pain is always an indication that something is not right,” says Geisel. “Sometimes the area that is in pain is affected by another misaligned joint. So, when a particular joint or muscle is causing discomfort, be sure to examine the joints and muscles surrounding it,” she advises. For example, if you feel a twinge in your lower back, check the angle of your knees and the alignment of your feet to ensure they are properly positioned.
Still struggling? Consult with an orthopedist, physical therapist, or occupational therapist — all of whom should be able to provide assistance and offer personalized guidance, evaluate your condition (even if it’s done remotely), and address any problematic areas to help you achieve proper alignment and posture.