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How to Improve Office Ergonomics at Home

busy mom works from sofa

by Dr. Ali Akhavan (from Summer issue of LivePure Journal) 

In the midst of our quarantine during the COVID-19 outbreak, many Canadians are being forced to work from home, often hunched over their laptops in awkward positions for hours. 

We need to realize that this trend may continue as the “new normal” for workplace environments. Your work may be pretty much the same as before, but your work setup is probably different. How are your shoulders feeling? How about your neck, back, and wrists? 

Some of us have discovered that we have started suffering from aches and pains that we did not have before when working at the office. Therefore, the term “Work-from-Home syndrome” has been dubbed. 

I have been treating many patients for strain in their back, neck, or shoulders since reopening of the office. Most people really do not have a good ergonomic situation at home, working at their kitchen table, or sitting on the couch with a laptop on their lap, and these positions are putting the body into awkward prolonged positions. The goal of ergonomics is to set up your home office workspace so that it fits you and the job you are doing.  

Our posture distributes physical stress throughout the body, and some postures can put a lot of stress in specific areas, which leads to problems in a short period of time.  

For example, lying in bed with your head propped up on a pillow, and a laptop on your knees is the path to pain for both your lower back and neck. If you were pain free  when you were in your office environment, and now during the quarantine time, you are in pain using your improvised workstation, it’s time to look at your set up and make sure it is ergonomically sound for your spinal health

How to create an ergonomic workspace at home 

  1. Put your laptop at eye level: Set up your workstation on a stable and flat surface, such as your kitchen counter or dining table. To keep your neck and shoulders upright place your laptop or your computer in a position that is at eye level. Keep your monitor and work directly in front of you. You do not want to be looking down. 

A professional tip: Place a piece of tape on a wall a little bit higher than eye level, and 30 seconds out of every 15 minutes, look at the tape instead of your screen so that your head naturally comes up. 

  1. Have your feet on the ground: To avoid stress on your lower back, keep your feet flat on the floor, rather than dangling. If your feet are not on the ground, it can really affect the arch in your lower back. Avoid crossing legs or tucking in your feet. 

A professional tip: Place a foot stool or couple of books under your feet to keep knees and hips at 90 degrees. 

  1. Find an adjustable straight-backed chair: Working on a couch or a bed is the worst thing for your posture because it will affect your lower back and your neck, and your head will always fall into that rounded shoulder position. The ideal chair gives you an upright posture and encourages full arm movement. If you have neck or shoulder discomfort, raise the armrest to support your forearm without pushing your shoulder toward your ear. 

A professional tip: Roll a towel and place it behind your lower back to provide lumbar support. 

  1. Turn your laptop into a desktop: If you are stuck with using your laptop, here are a few things that can help make it more ergonomic. Use an external monitor at eye level and attach it to the laptop. If you do not have an external monitor, use a laptop stand or stack of books. Also attach an external mouse and keyboard, which allows your hands and wrists to assume their most natural positions when working.  

A professional tip: If your desk has a hard edge, pad it or use a wrist rest. (Remove bracelets or watches that interfere with wrist movement, as well). 

  1. Take a break: Take a break every 30 minutes and go for a short walk around your work area every hour. If you have a stand-up desk, do the opposite and sit down on a chair for your break. Set a timer on your phone to remind yourself that you must move. 

A professional tip: If you primarily do desk work, try to break it up with tasks that get you out of your chair, like standing for telephone calls, if you can. 

  1. Maintain a good posture: Good posture means the bones carry the weight of your body. Aligning your posture lets your bones do the work, not your muscles. This prevents muscle spasm, pain, and inflammation. It can even prevent nerve pain and headaches. Shoulders should be dropped and relaxed, with elbows hanging down, centered at the seam line of your shirt. 

Do not use the keyboard with your elbows reaching forward. This could cause isometric spasm in your neck and/or shoulders and arms, leading to pain and inflammation.  Keep your sternum or breastbone lifted. This keeps your torso, head and shoulders erect. Letting the sternum collapse down will pull the head forward and compresses your torso. 

A professional tip: Avoid a forward head position. Keep your head erect, in line with your torso. For every inch your head is forward it increases the weight on your upper back and neck by 10 pounds! 

The new norm of the future is inevitably working from home; due to the safety requirements and physical distancing rules that will be difficult for many office spaces to handle with a full staff of employees. 

Follow some of the steps I have outlined in this article that will prevent musculoskeletal injuries, help you manage stress, and improve your productivity.

Dr. Ali Akhavan is a Doctor of Chiropractic and has been helping patients with musculoskeletal conditions in his private practice for last 23 years on the North Shore. Along with traditional Chiropractic techniques, Dr. Akhavan utilizes various modalities such as Spinal Decompression Machine, Cold laser, Shockwave Therapy to help his patients reach their health goals.