Millions of Americans are working from home in the ongoing public health effort to halt the spread of coronavirus. But many don’t have the benefit of home offices. They are creating makeshift workspaces from their dining room tables, kitchen counters, living room couches, or folding tables and chairs.
While these workstations may meet basic needs, most fail to provide sound ergonomic design, according to April Chambers, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. Chambers specializes in occupational ergonomics and bioengineering. She expects a steep rise in the number of people who are experiencing pain or discomfort in their neck, back, or shoulders. Unchecked, the pain can develop into long-term musculoskeletal injuries.
“At least one-third of workers report musculoskeletal discomfort and injuries when they are in a normal office environment with a desk and a chair. You can imagine it will be much higher in our current climate,” said Chambers.
Chambers says people can take several basic actions to make their home workstation more comfortable and reduce injury potential. The best practices are built on research, as well as recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the latter of which funded Chambers with a career award to examine occupational injury risk and discomfort.
Chambers is part of Pitt Education’s Health and Human Development Department. She holds a secondary appointment with Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering and is the laboratory director of Pitt’s Human Movement and Balance Laboratory (HMBL). Last year, Chambers published a paper in “Applied Ergonomics” that reviewed dozens of existing studies with regards to the impact of sit-stand desks effects on worker behavior and health. She was following up that work with a pilot study funded by the Occupational Ergonomics Research Committee to measure pain and fatigue levels among people during occupational sitting and standing, but the research was suspended due to physical distancing restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Benefits of a Neutral Posture
First and foremost, Chambers advises people working from home to focus on improving their posture, both in how they sit or stand and in how their work station is designed. The ideal posture is a neutral posture since it places the least strain on the joints and muscles.
“Anatomically, your body is designed to best withstand force in a certain posture. You can’t change your body weight (the force), but your posture changes how it is applied,” said Chambers. She compares that to a car being out of alignment and the damage it does to tires.
In terms of a person’s workstation setup, Chambers says the top of the computer monitor should be set at an eye-level height or slightly below. If the monitor is too low, then its height can be raised by propping books underneath it. In addition, the screen should be kept at an arm’s length away. Furthermore, people using laptops should avoid working with the laptop in their lap because looking down at the screen can place strain on the person’s neck.
In addition, the chair a person sits at should provide lower-back support, she says. Those with uncomfortable chairs should roll up a towel or insert a pillow to provide lumbar support.
Chambers also has tips for how people should position themselves when seated. The neck should be kept straight, shoulders should be relaxed, and arms should be at their sides. Elbows should be close to a 90-degree angle, although 70 to 130 degrees is within the acceptable range. Wrists should be kept straight. Legs and hips should be at a 90-degree angle. Feet should be placed flat on the floor. If a person’s feet do not reach the floor, books or a small stool can be used as a support surface.
Movement Breaks are Key
People working from home should also build more activity in their workday in order to improve their home ergonomics, says Chambers. Movement can include short activity breaks like walks, stretching, or physical fitness. Be Fit Pitt, an initiative of the School of Education’s Healthy Lifestyle Institute, is providing online content to assist with increasing movement throughout the workday as well. Virtual home workouts are live-streamed four times a day during the work week here.
“We take for granted the extent of our movement at the work office. When working from home, you don’t have to walk down the hallway to make copies or walk across campus for a meeting. Those were movement breaks naturally built into our day,” said Chambers.
Chambers also recommends that people add movement to their home workday by alternating between sitting and standing throughout the day. This is important, she says, because human bodies should not stay idle for long stretches of time. When working in a standing position, the monitor should still be at or just below eye-level, upper arms should be close to the body with the wrist straight, and the hands should be at or below the level of the elbows. People should also make sure their head, neck, torso and legs are in line. They should also wear comfortable shoes with good support if standing for a period of time while working.
“Alternating positions are critically important to relieve musculoskeletal discomfort. You could be in the perfect seated position, but the human body is not designed to stay still. We are meant to move,” said Chambers.
In addition to including movement breaks, people should also take breaks to limit their continuous screen time, she says. She recommends following the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes spent staring at the computer screen, people should spend 20 seconds looking at something else that is 20 feet away. This exercise reduces eye strain, which in turn reduces associated headaches.
“Eye strain is being overlooked. It can damage vision, cause headaches. You will also see it manifest itself in posture issues, with people hunching over as their eyes get tired,” said Chambers.
Light at the End of the Tunnel
Chambers urges any person experiencing pain or discomfort to take immediate action.
“Anyone who is facing discomfort is at risk for developing a longer-term injury. This is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, and you should listen to it,” said Chambers.
Like the million of other Americans, Chambers has also been working from home. She tries to practice what she preaches about ergonomics by incorporating activity breaks throughout the day and by using a sit-stand desk to alternate her posture.
“It’s a matter of establishing a new pattern or rhythm for yourself,” she said.
Work-from-Home Dos and Don'ts
Work-station positions (Source: U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
Working-from-home ergonomic check-list (Source: Liberty Mutual)
Be Fit Pitt for live-streamed virtual workouts four times daily during the work week (Source: Healthy Lifestyle Institute)