The Ergonomics of Working From Home and Its Consequences: Full 2020 Guide

Across the country, many people in the middle of the outbreak of COVID 19 with their necks, back and eyes overwhelmed wish they could exchange these home comforts for the comfort of the office.

Below are a few relevant suggestions by the Ergonomics Health Organization. They recommend having one specific place for working as to get into an appropriate mindset, creating an easy and regular work routine and to stay engaged with their colleagues. More on that later in this guide.

“Many people are struggling to use their home environment as an office, but they don’t know how to do it effectively,” said Donna Costa, director of the new occupational therapy programme at UNLV’s School of Integrated Health Sciences and expert in ergonomics and environmental adaptation. “Our home is our sanctuary, designed for our comfort. But there are things we can do to stay in harmony with ergonomic principles,” said Donna Costa.

What are the most common mistakes people make in designing their workplace at home that can lead to health problems? 

The two main problems are the device you use (PC, laptop, iPad) and your chair. They call it a laptop because it was originally designed for this purpose – an alternative to the desktop PC, which was portable. But having the laptop on your lap is the worst ergonomic position.  You want to reproduce the posture in the picture under this link. Your eyes should be at the same height as the top of your computer screen so you don’t look down and cause a strain on your neck. You can simply place your laptop on top of some books to increase the height. Your hips, knees and ankles should be bent at a 90 degree angle, and your elbows should also be bent. Your chair should have adequate lumbar support. If you have back, neck or wrist pain, your position is not correct and should be adjusted.

What are some general tips to avoid things like tension in your eyes, back or wrists? How do you know if you are doing it correctly?

Find a work surface and chair in your home that will help you adopt the position shown in the diagram above. But OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has revised its guidelines to take into account different ergonomic postures. There are four alternative postures in the workplace – sitting up, standing, lying down and leaning back. See the end of this page for more details.  You know you are not doing it right if you are suffering. If you are suffering, adjust to a different combination of work surface and chair. The kitchen table may be good to eat, but not the right height for work tasks. The other consideration is lighting, which should provide sufficient support for your concentration on tasks without tiring your eyes.

Are there gadgets or simple exercises that you can recommend to avoid or relieve pain due to poor ergonomics? Can you offer hacks that are content with items already lying around the house? 

It is not necessary to go out and buy equipment. If your feet do not touch the floor when you sit in your chosen chair, get one or two books that can be used as footrests. It is best to sit in a firm chair where you can assume the correct posture. Your sofa may be more comfortable, but you won’t sit on this comfortable sofa for long and your productivity will suffer. As for lighting, natural light is better, so try to have your new workplace in front of a window. If necessary, you can supplement it with additional lighting. Here in Nevada we have plenty of sun, so make the most of it!

For some of us, it may be obvious that we are not doing the normal walking and other exercises that are part of our daily working life. What is the best way to do it at home?  

Try to repeat your previous work routine as much as possible. If you used to take a walk during your lunch break, continue to do so. If you went to the gym every day, try to find a virtual class in which you can take part to simulate it. One of the most important ergonomic principles is to take regular stretching breaks. Our bodies should not be static, they should move. Make a habit of getting up and stretching once an hour during your working day.

Working from home means jumping from the computer to the telephone, to the television and back. How does longer screening time affect your health?

This new normality gives us the feeling of working all the time. The best strategy is to try to keep your previous working day as long as possible. Most of us did not have access to television during the day at work, so don’t do it now. It is tempting, and if you have children at home, the TV is probably on for them. But it is a huge distraction. So find a room in your house again where your concentrated posture and attention is supported. We know from research studies what effect screening time has on children’s brain development, so most parents try to limit the screening time. As adults, we also need to limit the time we spend examining our physical and emotional health. If your previous work schedule was from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break, try to repeat this at home. Remember to take breaks from your computer screen once an hour, even if it is only for a few minutes.

What do relevant studies say about this?

“COVID-19 had an immediate negative impact on the emotional well-being of the college students we studied,” said Jeremy Huckins, a lecturer on psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth. “We observed a large-scale shift in mental health and behaviour compared to the observed baseline established for this group over previous years.” Self-reported symptoms of depression and anxiety within the student research group increased markedly at the beginning of COVID-19. This was also the time when important policy changes related to COVID-19 were introduced, including encouraging students to leave campus and move to distance learning. These changes coincided with the end of classes and final exams, which were already among the most stressful periods for students in any academic semester. According to the study, anxiety and depression decreased slightly after the final exams when students moved to emergency accommodation. This indicated some resistance to COVID-19, but levels remained consistently higher than in comparable periods in previous academic semesters.

78 per cent of those bringing work home from the sofa risked repetitive strain injuries, back problems and neck strain. The survey revealed that living rooms are more often used as work spaces, followed by dining rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Domestic workplaces occupy fifth place – probably because of the small proportion of people who own them. Vocational service employees take work home more often, followed closely by employees in education, information and communication, financial services and administration/support.

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