“A huge piece of ergonomics is how we interact with our work environment,” says Cammie McAda, Vocational Rehab Employer Services Leader at Guardian. “It’s about the human behaviors that are controllable and can be changed. Not that our company buys us the coolest chair or a sit-stand desk.”
Whether an employee is working from a couch or a kitchen table, there are certain elements and behaviors that can impact how a workstation will support physical comfort and prevent unwanted discomfort, pain, or injury. And simple modifications or behavioral shifts are often all it takes to turn regular household furniture into a comfortable workstation.
Workstations should be set up to support good desk posture and promote neutral body positions, which let your joints naturally align and reduce physical strain. Your chair and desk should be positioned so that your wrists are straight when on your keyboard or mouse, and your hands are at or below elbow-level. Your chair height should permit your knees to rest at approximately the same level as your hips. You can use a footrest if needed to raise your feet. If your chair has armrests, these should be adjusted so that your arms gently rest on them while your shoulders remain relaxed.
If you’re using a chair that’s not designed specifically for working, consider using everyday objects to make simple modifications. “Put a thin pillow or towel down on your seat or roll a towel or t-shirt to create a lumbar support,” suggests Cammie. “Maybe your chair can’t be adjusted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a footrest — it can be a box or a trashcan.”
Your monitor should be about an arm’s length away and positioned so the screen is slightly below your eye level and right in front of you. If multiple monitors are used, place the screens so that the primary monitor is directly in front and the other monitors are adjacent. If two monitors are consistently used, position them next to each other and angled in a way that does not require excessive head movement to look from screen to screen.
The keyboard and mouse should be at the same level and comfortably reached while your arms rest on the same surface. If you frequently use a telephone, keep it nearby and opt for using a headset, if possible, to avoid neck strain.
Many employees who quickly transitioned to working remotely may only have a laptop as their primary computer. Cammie offers specific guidance for a proper computer ergonomic setup: “A laptop is awkward because you either have your keyboard too high or your monitor too low,” she says. “Use an external keyboard and make your monitor go higher or use an external monitor and keep your keyboard lower.”
While having a properly arranged monitor and chair can help prevent discomfort, employees need to be aware how their own actions can have an impact. “Our behaviors are critical to our overall well-being,” notes Cammie. “Working at home requires you to exercise control over your environment to the extent that you’re able, and to be aware of your body.”
Simple adjustments can make a big difference. Keep regularly used items within reach if you’re experiencing strain or try placing your phone on your non-dominate side to force you to alter your routine activities. If you find that you’re slumping too much in your chair, try taking breaks to work from your kitchen counter while standing. These behavior alterations can promote movement and reduce the chance for repeated actions that might cause future discomfort.
As you consider incorporating these ergonomic tips, don't forget to go straight to the source. Check with your employer to find out what home workspace benefits are available to you right now. Many employers may be able to provide equipment such as monitors, keyboards, headsets, or wrist pads to all employees, or even offer discounts or subsidies for furniture purchases. If your company offers resources such as a vocational expert — an authority on vocational rehabilitation who can offer guidance on ergonomic and rehabilitative workspaces — reach out to them for advice. And speak to your manager to discuss your specific workspace needs.
In addition to external support, personal behavior changes can have a big impact on your work environment. “Is it about the bells and whistles or are there personal behaviors that can account for our ergonomics in our workspace?” Cammie asks.
“Make a division of your workspace and designate this as your workspace to the extent that it is possible,” suggests Cammie. And structure your day in a way that is conducive to comfort and well-being by “alternating the amount of your time in communication-intensive meetings with independent work.” Shorten meetings by five or ten minutes if possible, to plan for a small break in between tasks.
Supporting your physical well-being ultimately helps promote your ability to focus and contribute to your business’ success. “You want to take ergonomic breaks,” says Cammie. “It gives you the opportunity to stand up, use the restroom, get a drink of water, and take care of what you need to take care of to be prepared, focused, and productive.”