Remember the early days of the pandemic when it was common to hear stories about people converting dining room tables to home offices and ironing boards to desks? The initial novelty of working and sipping coffee while staring out the kitchen windows was soon replaced by complaints about stiff necks, sore backs, cramped wrists, and strained eyes.
Ergonomic-related discomfort has been on the rise during the pandemic. According to a recent Chubb survey, almost half of Americans reported new or increased pain in their shoulders, wrists, or backs since starting to work from home during the pandemic.
Poor ergonomics are more than a pain in the neck. They can lead to long-term health issues such as tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or injuries to the back, knees, or shoulders. These issues, in turn, result in increased time spent by employees on sick leave and decreased productivity. So, whether you’re an employee or an employer, now is the perfect time to take steps to avoid ergonomic injuries.
Start with your workstation
And by workstation, we don’t mean the kitchen table, sofa, or La-Z-Boy recliner. A proper ergonomic desk and chair are keys to a good ergonomic working environment. Choose a chair that supports your spinal curves and adjust the height so that your feet can rest flat on the floor. Your thighs should be parallel to the floor. Adjust the armrests so that your arms can rest on them with your shoulders relaxed. An easy way to remember this is to think of a 90-degree frame. With your feet flat on the floor, the angle between the bottom of your foot and your Achilles tendon should be 90 degrees. The angle between the top of your thighs and spine should make a 90-degree angle, your chin should be at 90 degrees to your neck, and your forearms should be at 90 degrees to your lap.
Keep your mouse and keyboard on the desk surface and at a distance that enables you to keep your elbows close to your body. It’s also not a bad idea to alternate the hand you use to operate the mouse to reduce overuse on one side. Your monitor should be directly in front of you, about an arm’s length away, and the top of the screen should be at or slightly below eye level.
If you stand at your workstation, keep your head, neck, torso and legs in line and vertical and wear shoes that provide good support. According to the Mayo Clinic, you should choose a desk that enables you to put your monitor directly in front of you at least 20 inches away. Keep your wrists straight and your hands slightly below the level of your elbows. It’s not a good idea to use books, boxes, or boards to change the height of your desk. Standing at your desk has several health benefits to boot – see our previous blog, Why You Should Sit Less and Stand More.
Whether you sit or stand, it’s important to take stretch breaks throughout your workday because they can help reduce muscle tension and relieve discomfort. The University of Virginia recommends these simple stretches to get started:
- Neck: tuck your chin and tilt your head toward each shoulder. Turn your head from side to side to look over your shoulder.
- Hands: make a fist and spread your fingers as far as possible.
- Wrists: hold your arms straight out in front of your body and bend your hands up and down
- Shoulders: shrug your shoulders and then relax them. Roll your shoulders forward and backward.
- Lower back (while sitting): bend forward in your chair and try to touch the floor.
- Upper back and arms (while sitting): sit up straight, place your arms behind your head and move your arms backwards, pinching your shoulder blades together.
Give your eyes a break
When your eyes start to feel tired or sore, you can blink or yawn to help relubricate them. Rolling your eyes can also help release tension and soreness in the muscles around and behind your eyes. Another technique is to “palm” your eyes. Close your eyes and place your warm palms over them without placing any pressure.
Beyond these exercises, always make sure you have proper lighting. In general, it’s best to have natural light in front of or next to your workspace to minimize glare. You might also try blue light blocking glasses that block or filter blue light from digital screens and may help reduce potential damage to your retina.
The good news about all of these tips is that they are simple, mostly free, and good for your health. So, take a good look around your work environment and make at least one improvement today. Your back, neck, wrists, and eyes will thank you.