Whether you work in a traditional office setting or an area in your home, there are ways to set up your office so it is both safe and comfortable.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, many of us found ourselves working from home quite unexpectedly. These makeshift workspaces were not designed with safety and comfort in mind. In fact, impromptu office setups during COVID have taken a physical toll on many.

Some of the more common complaints are neck and shoulder pain, elbow issues,  painful wrists or tingling in the hands, lower back pain, and eye strain. More individuals are being diagnosed with carpal tunnel and other issues of the elbows and shoulder. What do all of these have in common?  Poor ergonomics.

What is ergonomics?Webster defines ergonomics as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.” In simple language, ergonomics means fitting the workstation to the person. Because each individual is very different, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to ergonomics.

Fortunately, our occupational therapists at Lifespan have put together some guidelines and some general tips that can make your workspace more comfortable and safer for you.

How to set up your office ergonomically There are four key areas to consider when you are creating a new workspace or updating your current office.

Chair

The chair is the foundation of the workstation. It is the first thing you should choose, and then everything else should be built around it. Some tips for getting the best desk chair that is right for you:

  • Use a comfortable chair with back support; add pillows if needed for extra support, especially if the chair is not cushioned.
  • The seat depth should support your thighs, and the edge of the seat should be about three to four inches from the back of your knee.
  • Be sure your lower back is supported. Rolled towels or a back cushion work well for lumbar support.
  • Legs should be supported when you are seated. Your feet should not dangle, and your feet should be on a solid surface. This way your core is supported, and your arms are then relaxed and free to move. Use a footrest if needed; cardboard boxes, binders, textbooks are great substitutes for a footrest.
  • If the chair has armrests, they should allow your arms to rest naturally at your sides. It is important that the arm rests do not interfere with the ability to move close enough to your desk. It is also important that your arms are able to move freely when using the keyboard.

Desk/Work Surface

Once you’ve found the perfect chair, it’s time to focus on your work surface. Your desk should allow your elbows to be slightly less than a 90-degree angle. This allows you to keep your wrists in a neutral position and is better for blood flow to your hands and fingers.

  • Avoid typing with your wrists bent upward. This wrist extension increases pressure on the carpal tunnel.
  • The best desk height for typing is lower than you might think. If your work surface is too high (greater than 30 inches for those of average height), try sitting in a higher chair or add pillows to your chair, and use a footrest if needed. Most work surfaces at home, such as dining tables or islands, are too high in relation to those chairs for typing.
  • Be alert for contact stress. This occurs when your elbows, wrists, or forearms are resting on a hard surface and/or sharp edge such as the desk or keyboard for long periods of time. This compresses soft tissues and restricts blood flow. Add padding or wrap edges of the desk to soften the surfaces where possible.
  • Keep the mouse as close to the keyboard as possible to avoid awkward shoulder and wrist movements. Your keyboard should be placed so the “h” on the keyboard is aligned with the center of your body.

Monitor Position

How your monitor is set up is equally as important as your chair and worksurface. There are some tips for setting up your monitor that will keep your eyes at the right level and will also help with those webcam angles for your Zoom meetings.

  • When looking straight ahead, your eyes should be level with the top of the monitor. This position allows you to keep your eyes in a neutral position and prevents eye fatigue. When you look up, your eyes are exposed to more air; by not needing to look toward the top of the monitor, your eyelids can protect your eyes and prevent them from becoming dry and irritated.
  • Place the monitor about 18 inches away. Generally, that is about an arm’s length, measured when sitting back comfortably in your chair. If you are using multiple screens or a very large screen, they should be placed a few inches further back.
  • If you are using a laptop, get an external keyboard and mouse and put the laptop on a platform to achieve the appropriate monitor height. You can purchase a stand or even use boxes or books. Small laptops may need to be closer for ease of viewing.
  • Use zoom features on your computer to enlarge your text or screen image. If you wear glasses with progressive lenses this could get tricky, so find what works best for you. The wrong monitor height can lead to neck pain. Some progressive lens wearers find that moving the monitor lower than eye level or tilting the bottom of the monitor closer can be useful.

Lighting and Vision

No matter where your office is, the lighting and your vision should be a priority in setting up your workspace.

  • Ideally your monitor should be at a right angle with the window. Don’t face the window, and don’t have it at your back, to cut down on glare. If you  are unable to position the monitor at 90° from a window, use shades, curtains, or other methods to filter the light.
  • Lower the ambient (overhead) light and use task lighting such as a gooseneck lamp over documents for reading.
  • Observe the 20-20-20 rule: For every 20 minutes of screen time or other visually intense work, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Pick something to stare at across the room. This changes your focusing distance and gives your eyes a chance to rest. Be sure to fully blink frequently to lubricate your eyes.
  • Remember your vision after work too! Your eyes are still hard at work after your business day ends. In the evenings they are probably looking at your phone, tablet or television. Consider ways to limit your off-work screen time. Reading a book is easier on the eyes because there is no light bouncing back at you.

General tips and best practicesEven with the right physical setup for your office or workspace, there are some best practices we should all adopt as part of a regular routine.

  • Alternate your workstations. Varying your posture throughout the workday is really important. Perhaps some of your work tasks that don’t require a computer can be done in different locations of your home. For example, if you are reading, talking on the phone, or handwriting something, try to do so while standing at the kitchen counter to vary your working posture for periods of time over the day.
  • Get up and move! Our bodies are not meant to be in a static position - they are meant to move. Sitting too long can cause neck, shoulder, and muscle weakness. Set your alarm and take a break every 30 to 60 minutes. These breaks should be both active and passive. For active breaks, get up and move. Go get a glass of water, do a quick chore, take a walk to look out the window at the other end of the house, or do a five-minute stretch/yoga routine. For passive breaks, do a breathing exercise or a five-minute meditation. Just be sure to break up your work routine with frequent breaks so you can move and rest your eyes.
  • Monitor your environment. Maintain a comfortable room temperature; use clothing layers if needed. Be sure you keep a water bottle at your desk so you stay well hydrated throughout the day.

What’s most important is that you listen to your body! Use these general tips as a starting point and get creative to adjust your workstation to your own comfort. If you experience discomfort, do not just push through to complete the task. Stop, try to identify the source of the discomfort, and take the necessary steps to correct it. Your body will appreciate the effort.

It you have continued aches and pains that don’t improve after using these guidelines to alter your workspace, Lifespan occupational therapists are here to help. Contact us to set up an ergonomic assessment or for a full occupational therapy evaluation to help you return to a pain free, happy and productive life.

Visit our website for more information on occupational therapy and Lifespan Rehabilitation Services.

Jill Levine, OTR/L, CHT

Jill Levine is a senior occupational therapist and certified hand therapist specializing in treating patients with hand and upper extremity injuries. She practices with the Rhode Island Hospital hand and upper extremity therapy service, part of the Lifespan Rehabilitation Services.