When stay-at-home orders were put in place earlier this spring in response to COVID-19, millions of workers quickly moved to the home office. Easy enough, right? Grab your laptop, maybe a mouse and secondary monitor, and enjoy the sweatpants life while working from home.
As states reopen, we are starting to explore our new normal. But, for more than half of employed Americans who have worked from home during this crisis, we’re seeing signs that many will remain there longer than initially expected. Facebook, Alphabet, Salesforce, and Slack all recently announced they have no intention of expecting employees to return to office buildings until at least 2021. Additionally, Gartner recently surveyed 317 CFOs and finance leaders and learned that 74% will move at least 5% of their previously on-site workforce to permanently remote positions post COVID-19.
While sit-to-stand, ergonomically sound workstations are left abandoned and collecting dust in office buildings nationwide, we’re being told to soak in the work-from-home world for a little while longer. While working from home seems simple enough by definition, the truth is, there are deeper complexities and complications—starting with furniture unfit for work. Couches, folding chairs, beds, and coffee tables—all ingredients of very poor work-from-home setups even if you are in your designated space room—take a toll on our bodies and may eventually lead to workplace injuries.
As a chiropractor that works closely with employers to prevent on-site workplace injuries and promote healthy working conditions, these kinds of work-from-home environments make me cringe. Carpal tunnel, tendonitis, muscle sprain, degenerative disk disease, and other systemic health concerns can spring from a haphazard remote office. The good news is there are several ways to maintain a comfortable and functional work set up and also prevent long-term damage to your health.
If you’re feeling early-onset neck or back pain, numbness and tingling in the fingers, or swollen legs or feet, the time is now to make changes to your workstation if there’s any hope of coming out of the work-from-home war victorious. Consider the following practical tips.
Make sure your chair allows you to lean back
Proper positioning allows the spine and body frame to absorb gravity while allowing the least amount of stress on our muscles, ligaments, and tendons. To ensure your chair promotes proper alignment, imagine a vertical line running through your ear, shoulder, and hip. Then sit back into your chair and take advantage of the backrest. Add a pillow for extra comfort and support and avoid sitting on a bed or couch.
Use the 90-degree rule
For proper alignment of your arms and legs, ensure they are both parallel to the floor with a 90-degree angle at the elbow, hip, and the knee. Sitting with a 90-degree angle at the elbow, hip, and knee allow for the least amount of physical strain in a sitting position.
If your chair is so high your feet don’t touch the floor, consider putting a bin at your feet to create that 90-degree angle.
Make sure your eyes rest looking straight ahead
Neck and shoulder pain are also common among those who work from home, as we tend to slightly look down at a laptop or monitor that sits lower than our eyes, creating tension from the neck to upper back. To avoid these aches and pains, realign your eyes with the center of the screen. If you are slightly looking down to see your work, use some books or a box to raise your screen to the proper height.
Take micro-breaks throughout your workday
To avoid strain on the body from sitting too long, stand up and stretch for 10-15 seconds, ideally every 30 minutes. This helps to increase blood flow, reduce numbness, and takes the pressure of hip, knee, and elbow joints. A bonus tip—give yourself a break from screen time and pick up a missed connection by taking a call while walking around the block.
Incorporate standing work
If you are missing your stand-up desk, improvise by using an ironing board or countertop to create a standing workstation. Standing work has been linked to decreased lower back and upper back and neck pain. Alternating between sitting and standing can also help with mental acuity and focus. However, if you do incorporate standing into your work routine, pay attention to the height of your screen. Ensure your screen is still high enough that you’re looking straight ahead.
When we do get back to the office, your employer, CEO, HR and benefits heads may share they struggled with aches and pains themselves, prompting management to think differently around ensuring proper workstations. In my work with on-site workplace injury prevention programs, employers find that they save money if they make an investment in long-term equipment. These workplaces also experience reduced healthcare costs, workplace injuries, and employee absenteeism.
If work-from-home employees do not adjust their workstation behavior from the couch, bed, or coffee table to a more suitable work space, a wave of work-from-home workplace injuries could flood doctors’ offices. And, while COVID-19 is still a threat, many of those affected by the dreaded work-from-home workstation aches and pains may not be able to receive timely treatments due to clinics catching up with backlogged patient visits or fear of exposure to the virus. The best thing to do is start making small changes and adjust your at-home workplace in order to avoid minor injuries which can gradually balloon to bigger (and more painful) problems.
Dr. Chad Henriksen, DC (Doctor of Chiropractic) is the director of WorkSiteRight at Northwestern Health Sciences University.