When most employees were sent home to work remotely in March, little consideration was given to the workspace that would support this new way of work. The main concern at the time was around the technology needs to complete the work. But a workspace is about more than a laptop and a camera for those virtual meetings.
It’s about the ergonomics of your space—the process of fitting the tasks and tools to the person. And this has to be a priority for the health and well-being of your employees.
Whether you have a designated space to use for work or are relocating throughout the house depending on where everyone else is, understanding the ergonomics of a workspace will ensure you are comfortable and able to work anywhere. But let’s face it: Ergonomics probably isn’t top of mind for most employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
No matter what type of work your employees are doing, there is a risk of injury if proper form and placement are not considered. Your employees likely know that the card tables they are using aren’t the ideal desk. But they might not have a better alternative. So, it’s about making the most of what you have to ensure maximum comfort and productivity.
Proactively communicating about the importance of a healthy and functional workspace will show your employees that you care. It will also help them avoid future injuries and create awareness around the warning signs that something isn’t right.
Whether standing, sitting, or somewhere in between, the tips below will help set your employees up for success in today’s work-from-home world.
Desk Ergonomics Best Practices
At home, an adjustable chair is not always available, and instead, many employees find themselves making due. No matter what kind of chair you’re using—a folding chair, straight-backed dining chair, bar stool, or fit ball—focus on these important elements: seat height, seat depth, back support, and armrests, if the chair has them.
Ensure the seat height positions the hips level with, or slightly higher than, the knees. There should be some clearance between the backs of the knees and the front edge of the seat. At a minimum, the backrest should provide fairly upright torso and comfortable lumbar support. Feet should be fully supported on the floor or footrest. If you’re sitting on a bar stool with your feet on a rung, be sure to change positions more frequently to limit localized soft tissue compression on the soles of the feet.
Now, it’s time to talk about the shoulders. It’s important that your shoulders be relaxed, with your upper arms hanging loosely at your sides. If you’re using chair armrests for support, keep your shoulders and upper arms relaxed. Some chairs have fixed, or nonadjustable, armrests. If they do not support you in a balanced posture, consider removing them if possible.
It’s also important to consider the placement of the keyboard and mouse. They should be positioned slightly below elbow level and shoulder distance apart. When setting up your technology devices, placement should support approximately a 90-degree angle in your elbows and allow you to work without bending your wrists.
If you find that your desk or table is too high relative to your seated posture, it’s time to improvise. Place pillows on the chair seat to raise your body higher, but don’t forget about your feet. You may need a makeshift footrest to maintain hip and knee alignment.
Whether using one or multiple monitors, placement matters. A single monitor should be as far away as visually comfortable and tilted back no more than 20 degrees. Further tilting increases the possibility of glare from any overhead lights. Both the monitor and the middle of the keyboard home row should align with the center of the body; your wrists should not be bent.
Different Rules for Dual Monitors
When using dual monitors, placement depends on your use of each monitor. If one monitor is the primary monitor, placement of that monitor should align with the center of the body, and the second monitor is offset. If using two monitors equally, they should be positioned with the monitors meeting at a point aligned with the center of the body.
Keep the top of visual tasks at or slightly below eye level. This is important for maintaining proper head alignment. Avoid tilting your head up or down in order to see the screen.
Finally, breaks are especially important when viewing monitors. We tend to blink less frequently, so take frequent, short vision breaks. The 20/20 rule is a useful guide: Every 20 minutes, focus on something in the distance for 20 seconds. If you can do this more frequently, even better.
What About Standing Workstations?
Standing workstations offer many benefits, but they also require an adjustment period. Gradually increase your standing tolerance, working up to the optimal ratio of 20 minutes sitting, 8 minutes standing, and 2 minutes of walking around.
When standing, the soles of your feet should be fully supported and your knees slightly bent, or one foot slightly in front of the other. Avoid locking your knees.
From the waist up, the same relationships for sitting still apply. Relax your shoulders, with your upper arms held loosely at your sides and the keyboard and mouse slightly below elbow level.
In the absence of an actual sit-to-stand desk, a kitchen island might be used as a standing workstation. If you find the keyboard, mouse, and display are too low, use a box or books to elevate to a more comfortable position.
Finally, a standing workstation is intended to balance time spent sitting, standing, and walking. Only stand and work for as long as it is comfortable. Maintaining good, balanced posture is important.
It’s easy to forget about posture and start to slump as time passes. Using a padded mat for standing work is a good idea, but it should be moved out of the way when you return to seated work. Wearing comfortable, supportive shoes may be a more functional solution.
Watch for the Warning Signs
Working from home is much different from the traditional office, especially if it’s a new way of work for your employees. It’s likely that employees will experience minor muscle soreness and tension simply because their at-home workstation is different from what they are used to. This soreness and tension should be temporary.
If those symptoms persist or worsen, this may be a sign that something isn’t right in terms of fit. A behavioral component could also be at play, like taking too few breaks or working longer hours. Try to identify what provokes those sensations, and make adjustments to help alleviate them.
While many of your employees may not have imagined working from home for 2 straight months, it’s still possible to set them up for success. Managing a work-related injury is never fun, especially during a pandemic. Instead of waiting for warning signs, work with employees to proactively evaluate their workspace setup.
A workspace that works for employees will ensure their day is more productive and their work is more enjoyable—making for happier, healthier employees.
|Phil Beedle is a Program Manager at HealthFitness. Beedle brings more than 20 years of experience to his role and is responsible for supporting the office ergonomics programs of several technology and energy clients. His background includes a graduate degree in Exercise Science, office ergonomics program development, customer engagement, and delivery of professional continuing education.|