With most of us now working from home, the issue of how to set up your “home office” is becoming a hot topic. I’ve seen a lot of ergonomic and health and safety information going around, giving advice on how to set up your home desk in an ergonomically sound way…… but the reality is, most of us don’t have the luxury of a home office. The dining room table may be available, and if you’re lucky, there may be a mildly comfortable chair to sit on. A vast majority are making do with a laptop and a pillow or a bed or a piece of the floor beside the kids lego and art and crafts.

So how do we set up a home office “ergonomically” when we don’t have a home office?

From a health and safety perspective, we have to remember that the primary reason we are at home at the moment is to stop the transmission of a high contagious virus. So, that is the highest priority and therefore, some compromises are definitely required and realistically, the normal rules don’t apply.

The issues and problems that most of us working from home are facing or that will arise most probably fall into the following three categories;

  • Pain – muscular aches and pains, stiffness and discomfort, particularly neck, shoulders and lower back.
  • Brain – difficulty concentrating due to distractions at home, particularly those with kids around. Or, conversely, due to lack of human contact and isolation for those that are living on their own.
  • Drain – fluctuating motivation and energy for work when there is so much else going on……and so many other temptations such as netflix, or food or the gardening…..or sleeping.

Here is my top tips on how to create a home working situation that minimises aches and pains and keeps you in a productive as possible environment.

MOVE, move, move, move, move…..and then move

This is your best and most powerful tool you can adopt. And in fact, if you don’t have a designated home office set up, this could actually work in your favour. The research suggests that for those who are in sedentary work, ie. computer based work, then you really need to be standing and moving for at least 2 hours out of an 8 hours shift, and possibly up to 4 hours to minimise the risk of lifestyle related disease and postural issues. Our bodies are designed to move and all our metabolic and musculoskeletal functions are based on movement within our body. When we sit for long periods, our bodies stagnate. They get stiff. Signalling to our cells diminishes, blood flow slows down, metabolism gets downregulated. Lymphatic drainage slows down. So in other words you have less oxygenation and increased cellular waste………..think fatigue, brain fog, stiffness, lack of concentration. Not very good for work productivity let alone pain and overall health!

Here’s some ideas for creating movement while working at home;

  • Cupboard shelf/ Kitchen bench – if you are working on a laptop, experiment with different places you can set up and work. The kitchen bench or a shelf in a cupboard could become your best new workstation. Try and get something at least waist height. It may mean you are looking down a little more than the “ideal” amount, however, I generally find when people are standing they tend to move around and look away or out the window more frequently than when sitting at a desk.
  • Change every hour or so – have a few different places you can rotate between. Even if this is the lounge or bed, allow yourself to get up and move to a different location every hour or so. The movement will be helpful and the change of environment and position will allow a different focus and concentration and change the loading on muscles and joints.
  • Do some laps – take advantage of the freedom to get up and move whenever you want. Walk to the other end of your house or apartment, go outside into your backyard or onto the footpath. Set yourself a timer to do this every 45 minutes. Sounds like it would be disruptive to your work, however, you will find it stimulates that circulation and oxygenation and therefore give your brain and body a boost.

Pillows are your friend

When you are sitting, be it on your lounge, on your bed, on the floor or on a dinning room chair, use pillows to support your posture. Believe it or not, you can even sit on your bed and keep your posture in good alignment and well supported. The trick is to support the natural curvature of your spine. The best way to test this is to look at where your chin is in relation to the rest of your body. If it’s poking forward of your shoulders, then adjust so your ears are approximately in line with your shoulders (from the side). No chin poking! This rule applies no matter where you are sitting. You can even adopt a slightly reclined position. In fact, current recommendations for computer based workstations promote the utilisation of different angles of hip flexion and different postures depending on the task performed. For example, if you are reading a document, you could lean back in your chai and lean the back of your chair into a slightly reclined position. To adopt a reclined position in bed, put a pillow under your knees, pillows behind you, especially your head and neck to support, and a pillow on your lap to elevate your laptop. The big thing to avoid is twisting to the side, for example, lying on the bed on your side with your laptop beside you.

Get outside

If you have a semi shaded spot outside then use it. You can use an outdoor table and chair or a picnic rug with pillows to sit on and a box to put your laptop on. The fresh air will do wonders for your body and mind, and, a little sunshine everyday will give you a Vitamin D boost…..which is great for your immune system.

Elevate your laptop

If you are working on your laptop, then it is good to vary the height at which it sits to vary the loading on your neck and shoulders. Try putting a small book under the laptop or even something on a slight angle so that the back of your laptop keyboard is slightly elevated compared to the front. It’s a small change in angles that will create a small change in biomechanics and help to prevent sustained loading on muscles and joints. Remember, the key is to create movement and therefore change it up regularly and experiment with different heights.

So while these recommendations don’t fully comply with your ergonomic checklists and your WH&S legislations, it is about minimising the risk in the best possible way you can during some rather challenging and unexpected circumstances. Of course, if you get a week down the track and you are experiencing a real increase in discomfort, headaches or persistent symptoms, it is worth speaking with the relevant health and safety practitioners to get individual advice.

Have fun experimenting and getting creative!

PS: if you want an ergonomic checklist for setting up and actual home desk situation then this link will give you some good info.

Biswas, A., Oh, P. I., Faulkner, G. E., Bajaj, R. R., Silver, M. A., Mitchell, M. S. & Alter, D. A. (2015). Sedentary time and its association with risk for disease incidence, mortality, and hospitalization in adults: A systematic review and meta- analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 162 (2), 123-32.

Buckley, J. P. (2015). The sedentary office: a growing case for change towards better health and productivity. Expert statement commissioned by Public Health England and the Active Working Community Interest Company. Br J Sports Med; Published Online First: 1 June 2015

Chau, J. Y., Grunseit, A. C., Chey, T., Stamatakis, E., Brown, W. J., Matthews, C. E., Bauman, A. E. & Van Der Ploeg, H. P. (2013). Daily sitting time and all-cause mortality: A meta-analysis. PLoS One, 8 (11), e80000.

This article has been re-published with permission from its original author, Jacqueline Edser. It was originally published here on her blog at jacedser.com.au

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