As we are in the midst of another national lock down across the UK, more people than ever are currently working from home. The key to keeping comfortable whilst working in a new environment away from the office is setting your equipment up in the most ergonomically friendly way as possible.
This article will provide you with advice on:
- How to set up your workstation correctly
- How often you should take a break or change posture
- What stretches and exercises can help to reduce the risk of developing an injury
- What to do if you develop an injury
Correcting your desk posture
Maintaining a good posture at your workstation will reduce your risk of developing an injury and improve your ability to concentrate; maximizing your productivity.
Sitting in a poor posture can result in you developing various aches and pains, including repetitive strain injuries to the upper limbs (wrists, elbows or shoulders), neck and upper back pain, headaches, lower back pain or circulatory issues in the lower limbs.
How to sit for optimal posture... Where to start? If you have the ability to adjust the height of your desk, it is advisable to set your desk height first and then adjust your chair around this. If you are unable to adjust the height of your desk (or kitchen table, in many peoples case!), you should make adjustments to your chair and work this around a fixed desk height.
Your desk height should be such that you can comfortably rest your forearms on the desk/surface with your elbows at 90 degrees and shoulders relaxed, i.e not hunched up to lift arms up onto the desk. You may need to raise your chair to enable you to achieve this position. If this then compromises a stable base for your feet to rest on, you may then need to use a footstool to support your feet in this raised position.
It depends on the type of chair you are using as to how many adjustments you can make to your seat. As a minimum we recommend you having a chair which you can adjust the seat height, back angle and seat depth. Many people have been able to borrow an adjustable chair from their workplace to use at home; it is worth exploring this option if you haven't got your own adjustable chair to avoid any additional expense to you.
Your seat height should be set so that your hips are slightly above your knees and your feet can rest comfortably on the floor (or your footrest).
Your seat depth should support your thighs effectively, but whilst allowing space at the backs of your knees to maximize circulation in your lower limbs when sitting. There should be space for 2-3 fingers behind the backs of your knees to the seat pan.
Your backrest should provide support to your lumbar spine (lower back) where the spine naturally curves inwards. If your back rest is not adjustable, you can achieve adequate support with a small folded towel or lumbar roll. If it is possible to have the back rest unlocked, this is preferable to allow natural, smooth movement of your back in the seat.
Your screen(s) should be positioned so that the top of the screen(s) is at eye level. If you are using a laptop screen, it is recommended you place this on a laptop raise.
If you use more than one screen, your primary screen should be placed directly in front of you, with any additional screens to the side. If you use two screens equally, these should be positioned equally in the centre.
Keyboard and mouse
Your keyboard and mouse should be a comfortable distance away from you to avoid over reaching. We recommend using an external keyboard and mouse rather than those on the laptop.
If you use a telephone regularly for work, you should use a headset to avoid any awkward positions of your head and neck.
If your work involves copy typing or reviewing/referring to paper documents regularly, you should consider using a document holder to position these in a manner which makes them easier to view and to avoid repetitive neck movements to look between documents and the screen.
If you have files which you need to access regularly, be sure to position these in easy reach to avoid unnecessary over reaching.
The importance of taking a break
Our bodies were not designed to maintain one position for many hours in a day. It is not unusual for an office worker to be sitting at their desk for 2-3 hours without getting up from the chair. It is therefore unsurprising that maintain the same posture for this length of time can lead to aches and pains due to increased muscle tension and other soft tissue tightness, increases stress on the load bearing joints and can affect circulation.
We recommend introducing a micro-break into your schedule... at a minimum of every hour (ideally every 30-40 minutes), stand up from your chair, walk around the room then sit again. It can even be turning around on the spot a few times if your headset is attached and you're on a call! This will boost your circulation and give your muscles and joints a much needed reprieve.
Giving your eyes a rest is also important; middle distance vision (i.e. from your eyes to the screen) is the hardest distance for your eye muscles to maintain control at, so why not try the 'rule of 20' - every 20 minutes focus on an object 20 metres away for 20 seconds. You'll notice less eye strain, reduced dryness of the eyes and reduced headaches.
Breaks aren't only important for your physical health, but also for your mind and mood. Taking a few moments out of the day to think about something else will help you stay on task in the long term. Working at home we are missing out on all those natural brief breaks from work i.e. chatting to a colleague about the weekend, walking to the next building to chat to another team rather than just sending an email or picking up the phone. Instead, why not go and putting some washing on, load the dishwasher or check in with the kids who are homeschooling and don't beat yourself up about doing these things; you'll be able to concentrate better when you return to your desk.
Stretches & exercises to minimize injury
When deciding what to stretch and how often you should stretch; there are a couple of things to consider... firstly, are you likely to stick to a set routine or would you prefer to slot a few stretches in here and there when there is opportunity? Are you prone to any specific aches and pains which require more focus or is an overall preventative plan required?
If you think you'll need a bit of assistance to ensure you allow time to stretch during your working day, you could diarize it and therefore you will have protected time to achieve it. Alternatively using a break reminder software on your PC or an App on your phone can help focus you.
So what to stretch? Common problematic areas in office workers include the neck and shoulders, forearms and the lower back. We have shared some key exercises on our Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/oxfordperformanceclinic/videos/1744872875675573) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/p/CKEPT8enheQ/) pages which you may find useful to get you started.
We also recommend office workers perform exercises to improve their posture at home; exercises to improve strength of the upper back and neck muscles and of the lower back and core to maintain a good sitting posture throughout the day. Certain forms of exercise such as pilates, tai chi and yoga are all good methods of exercise for improving posture.
What to do if you have an injury
If you are experiencing aches and pains which you believe may be a result of your work posture, we recommend asking someone else in your household to take a photograph of you sitting at your desk (or set a timer on your phone camera and take a photo yourself). You can then identify any modifications you can make to improve your posture at home when working. It is essential to also vary your posture as much as possible so that any inflammation or soft tissue tension doesn't build up and exacerbate your symptoms. Why not take 30 seconds to stand and walk around the room every 30 minutes or so to give your circulation a boost and your tissues a break from effort.
In addition, we suggest you try to implement the stretches and exercises above on a regular basis throughout the day when working - why not try a few stretches whilst on a Zoom call, or set a reminder on your work calendar every few hours to do 2 or 3 stretches for your neck/shoulders/arms or lower back?
Applying heat to your neck and shoulders can help relieve tension which tends to build up in this area when sitting for prolonged periods. 20 minutes of a hot water bottle or wheat bag in the microwave applied to your muscles can make a big difference to your comfort.
If you are still experiencing discomfort, physiotherapy can help with soft tissue therapy and prescription of more specific exercises relating to your individual needs.