Before you started working from home, you probably had a dedicated space at an office. Sure, it was likely just a cubicle—if you were lucky—or a seat at a shared table, but at least you had a computer, desk, and all the other components needed to do your job.
With the appearance of Coronavirus, millions made the move to remote work, but only 43 percent of people had a home office. Two years into the pandemic, too many of us are still improvising our workspaces even though working from home has become the new norm. Even those of us with home offices might not have the most ergonomic setup for our health.
You’ll not only feel a greater sense of well-being with the right setup, but you’ll also feel less tired and achy at the end of the day. When it comes to work-from-home (WFH) ergonomics, the three basic principles to keep in mind when setting up your workspace are posture, movement, and comfort.
Check out our list below to see how these three principles break down to make your at-home workspace better for your health.
5 Best Practices for Better Work-From-Home Ergonomics
Here are the best ergonomic tips for your WFH setup:
#1 Build a Fully Adjustable Workstation
The key to ergonomics is finding what’s comfortable for you. We all have different bodies and needs, but if you’re feeling ultra-comfortable when you sit down to work–and don’t notice any pain during or after the job–chances are you’re getting it right.
If not, then it’s time to start playing with different equipment and setups to find what works best for you. The easiest way to do that? Buy stuff that’s fully adjustable (and returnable).
It’s a lot easier to find that sweet spot if you can try out different items and return the ones that don’t adjust to your liking.
Here are some guidelines you can use in your quest to make your home workstation more ergonomic:
- An external keyboard: The keys should feel good when you press down on them. Some people prefer bouncy keys that are close together, so they don’t have to reach far or work hard to press down. Other people like more shallow keys, spaced further apart. Whatever it is, be honest with yourself and choose the keyboard that best suits your hands.
- A mouse that’s comfortable for your hands: Have small hands? Get a small mouse. If you have wrist pain, try a vertical mouse that keeps your wrists in a neutral position. If you have bigger hands, you’ll have more options, but that doesn’t mean every single mouse will work for you. Find one that makes your wrists super comfy.
- A desk that allows your feet to stay flat on the floor…: This keeps your back and legs (and those good ol’ knees) in a neutral position. If you need to sit lower or higher than the standard desk height to keep your feet on the floor, splurge for a desk that goes to the level you need. It’ll be well worth it.
- …and a desk that allows your elbows to stay at a 90-degree angle: When it comes to your desk setup, another key thing is making sure your elbows are always at a 90-degree angle when you are typing or mousing. That will help keep your wrists in a neutral position, which can prevent tendinitis and other repetitive strain injuries. You might need to buy a shorter desk than you expected, but you’ll be happy you did.
- A cushioned chair with a rounded front and lumbar support: You should be able to adjust a chair’s height, armrests, lumbar support, and seat angle to your liking.
- An external computer monitor: It should be an arm’s length away with the top of the monitor at or below eye level. If you have to use a laptop computer screen, prop it up with a laptop stand, box, or books to get the screen at eye level. Laptop screens tend to be smaller than desktops, so increasing your font size can make things easier to see while you keep your screen at the right distance.
We know what you’re thinking: This all sounds great, but who’s going to pay for it? While your boss doesn’t have to give you ergonomic equipment for a home office, it doesn't hurt to ask. They may be willing to give you an allowance to improve your at-home work area.
Note that if you have a home-based worksite, such as one that manufactures products, OSHA's General Duty Clause does require your employer to provide a hazard-free workplace. This includes ergonomic dangers that increase workplace injuries, like bending, reaching overhead, and lifting.
Your employer should have a policy for ergonomic equipment and a process to report injuries. OSHA can inspect home-based worksites for hazards after you file a complaint.
#2 Make Posture a Priority
You can spend hours stooped over a computer or slouching in an uncomfortable chair. If you want to improve your posture, find an office chair with armrests.
Like we said earlier, it’s best to keep your feet flat on the floor, but you can always use a household item like a box or book as a footrest. For the best results, try placing your hips and knees at a 90-degree angle. Your elbows should also be at a 90-degree angle so your upper body stays in a neutral position.
Aim to sit or stand at a desk when working from home. If you have no other choice but to sit on a couch, sofa chair, or the kitchen table, use upper and lower back support like pillows or a rolled towel.
#3 Cut Back on Screen Time
With all the Zoom meetings, emails, and online documents, you’re glued to your screen for long periods of time.
Eye strain can become a real problem. As your eyes tire, you might also start hunching, squinting, and pulling your screen closer than what’s recommended.
The solution is to take quick screen breaks. It’s as simple as following the 20/20/20 rule: every 20 minutes, focus on something about 20 feet away for 20 seconds. That’ll give your eyes a break.
#4 Take Frequent Breaks
You give your eyes a break, but what about your body? When you work from home, it’s easy to get caught up in a project and forget to rest, but breaks are incredibly important for your health.
It’s good to take at least one long break after working for extended periods—and you probably already do so with lunch! Use this time to improve your health by going for a walk, stretching, or rehydrating either before or after eating.
But shorter breaks are also crucial to your health and wellness. You can free two birds with one key by also using the 20/20/20 rule as your cue to stand up and walk around. Experts recommend standing for eight minutes and moving around for two after 20 minutes of sitting.
This may not seem doable at first, but while you’re standing, you can still catch up on work emails and calls, schedule events, and do other small tasks.
If you can swing it, a standing desk makes it easier to stay productive while breaking up long periods of sitting, but you can also work from your phone or tablet.
Just be sure to keep your posture in mind! Put in headphones and use your device’s assistant to get things done so that you can keep your head up and look straight ahead.
#5 Address the Little Things Bothering You About Your Workspace
Small annoyances in your work area can add up to a big impact on your overall health. For example, take a look around your workspace, and ask yourself:
- Do I have the right lighting for the job? You may need a bright desk lamp if you do a lot of paperwork and dimmer lighting for computer work to stop squinting from eye strain.
- Is there a glare on my screen? Blinds can help, so can moving your workstation to a different area where there’s less glare. The goal is to make sure your eyes can easily see what’s on the screen.
- Items that I’m always using—are they easily within reach? You generally want to keep your elbows close to your torso, although occasionally having to fully reach out your arm is fine. Having to constantly reach out could cause shoulder, arm and elbow pain.
- Does the temperature feel right? If you’re too cold, you may find yourself rounding your shoulders and hunching over to keep your body warm. If it’s too hot, slouching and slumping can take over instead.
Why Is Ergonomics Important While Working From Home?
According to a recent study, two out of five Americans felt new or increased pain in their shoulders, back, or wrists since they began working from home.
Small tweaks to your workspace can prevent pain and more serious injuries, such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDS; muscle, joint, and nerve disorders) like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis, which can also be crippling. These injuries can happen from:
- Repetitive movements like typing
- Sitting at your computer with an awkward posture
- Having your mouse too far out in front of you
- Using your keyboard and mouse with bent wrists
There are all sorts of ways to handle these problems, but if the tweaks we mentioned above aren’t working and you’re in a lot of pain (for example, you can’t type at all without hurting)—consider using dictation software.
It might be a slow learning curve at first, but you can eventually reduce your typing by two-thirds or more. And that will be a huge break for your body.
Are You Practicing Good Ergonomics at Home?
Now that you know the rules for good ergonomics, how do you keep track and remember to use these tips in your daily life? Use an ergonomic checklist to perform a self-assessment.
This makes it easy to point out habits and areas in your workspace that need improvement. Pin your checklist on the wall near your computer or place it somewhere visible to keep ergonomic principles top of mind.