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Is working from home a literal pain? These ergonomic setups and healthy habits can help

Marc Saltzman
·7 min read

Working from home has taken a toll on your body.

After all, the pandemic has forced millions of people to set up a remote office on a kitchen island or coffee table, and it's wreaking havoc on our backs, necks, forearms and eyes, say the experts.

“After the honeymoon phase wore off – the ‘yay, I get to work from home’ realization – work and social hours on digital platforms expanded, and people started moving less,” explains Arlette Loeser director of ergonomics and injury prevention, at Mount Sinai Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health in New York City.

“What’s more, dining room chairs became the dreaded hard surface, and the unstructured surfaces of sofas and beds fostered poor posture, which led to aches just about everywhere,” continues Loeser, who currently hosts a webinar on ergonomic essentials and stress management for remote workers.

A year of working from our kitchen islands, sofas and coffee tables is taking its toll on our backs, necks, arms and eyes.
A year of working from our kitchen islands, sofas and coffee tables is taking its toll on our backs, necks, arms and eyes.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, One Call, a leading workers’ compensation services company, compared claims data from 2019 to 2020 and found a 24.6% increase in lower back pain along with a rise in forearm, wrist, or hand pain.

To reduce wear and tear on your body while working from home, take heed to these ergonomic tips:

Have a seat (or stand)

It won’t cost you much to invest in a decent office chair with lower back support. And your mom was right – posture is important, too – so stop yourself from leaning in toward the monitor. Instead, sit all the way back.

If you can, choose a chair with wheels so you could better position yourself for added comfort. Learn about the adjustment features of your chair, if it offers any.

Can't afford a fancy office chair? A favorite lumbar-support hack of ergonomics expert Arlette Loeser is fitting and tying a roll of paper towels on the back of your chair to provide low back support across or spine. You can adjust the amount of support by tearing off sheets until you get it right.
Can't afford a fancy office chair? A favorite lumbar-support hack of ergonomics expert Arlette Loeser is fitting and tying a roll of paper towels on the back of your chair to provide low back support across or spine. You can adjust the amount of support by tearing off sheets until you get it right.

Loeser has some suggestions for those who can’t afford a proper office chair: “I suggest finding items in your home to improve comfort – anything from pillows and boxes as footrests to rolls of paper towels and scarves.” Her favorite hack? “Fitting and tying a roll of paper towels on the back of your chair to provide low back support across or spine support going up the back from the beltline, easily fitted to each person by adjusting the number of towels on the roll,” adds Loeser.

Both your feet should be flat on the floor. And if you're vertically challenged (like yours truly) and your feet don't reach the floor when seated, use a small step-stool or file box to rest your feet on under the desk. Your keyboard and mouse should be at (or slightly below) elbow level, so adjust your chair’s height accordingly.

Those who work from home should resist working on a laptop while reclining on a sofa or in bed as those positions bring the risk of neck problems.

An increasingly popular option is a standing desk, which has you standing rather than sitting to promote more muscular use and better blood flow. Many of these desks are height-adjustable, too, which let you manually (or electronically) change orientation from standing to sitting, and back again, on demand. There are also balance ball chairs, which some workers swear by.

‘Monitor’ your health

Look for a monitor with a larger screen (say, 24 inches and bigger), so you don’t have to squint to see small font (and increase the font size).
Look for a monitor with a larger screen (say, 24 inches and bigger), so you don’t have to squint to see small font (and increase the font size).

When seated in your chair, be sure to swivel your chair so you’re facing the monitor straight-on – and thus not putting unnecessary strain on your neck. Your monitor should be at eye level and should tilt left and right and swivel up and down to help you find the most comfortable angle.

You can also find wall mounts, including retractable and adjustable monitor arms, to help dial in the most comfortable setup for you.

Look for a monitor with a larger screen (ideally, 24 inches and bigger), so you don’t have to squint or increase the font size to read. A bigger display is also ideal for multitasking as you can have more windows open at the same time, which reduces the likelihood of missing a time-sensitive email or instant message.

Also, make sure you have adequate lighting to prevent having to strain your eyes to see the monitor.

Several ASUS monitors are designed to reduce blue light emissions, display flicker and glare to mitigate eye and vision problems like Computer Vision Syndrome.
Several ASUS monitors are designed to reduce blue light emissions, display flicker and glare to mitigate eye and vision problems like Computer Vision Syndrome.

“Working from home or in any environment where you’re staring at a screen for most of the day, can strain your eyes and potentially cause issues including Computer Vision Syndrome, which leads to symptoms like headaches, burning eyes and fatigue,” maintains Camila Huang, spokesperson from ASUS, a leading PC monitor manufacturer that designs its monitors for office, professional and gaming use.

“So, when it comes to your PC monitor, look for specific features that reduce blue light emissions, display flicker and glare to mitigate eye and vision problems like CVS,” Huang adds. To help mitigate Computer Vision Syndrome, some ASUS displays are branded as ASUS Eye Care monitors.

Moderation is key

Making a habit of getting up to get a drink of water, stretch and do some minor neck, back, and arm exercises.
Making a habit of getting up to get a drink of water, stretch and do some minor neck, back, and arm exercises.

No matter which size or brand of monitor you use, make a habit of looking away from your monitor every couple of minutes. Also, be sure to blink when focusing and close your eyes every few moments to give them a break, too.

Speaking of breaks, take them. Even if you’re super busy – especially if you’re super busy.

Get up to get a drink of water, stretch and do some minor neck, back, and arm exercises. You can also gently rub your muscles when you need a little break. Perform these short stretches and exercises repeatedly throughout the day, even if it’s just rolling your neck around or reaching up to the ceiling.

Use the phone a lot during your workday? Use a Bluetooth headset or wireless earbuds so you don't have to cradle the phone between your neck and ear while typing.
Use the phone a lot during your workday? Use a Bluetooth headset or wireless earbuds so you don't have to cradle the phone between your neck and ear while typing.

If you use a phone all day, invest in a hands-free headset or wireless earbuds so you’re not trying to hold the phone between your neck and ear while typing at the same time.

Speaking of phones, Loeser suggests making use of apps that encourage and remind you to stand and move every so often.

Overall, a good ergonomic makeover “is a blend of your computer and components being positioned properly and implementing work behaviors that imitate the life we had before COVID," says Loeser. “This includes moving, taking natural breaks, breathing deeply, nourishing the body with snacks and meals, and challenging isolation by getting outdoors for short walks.”

Mice and keyboards

Logitech’s MX Vertical Advanced Ergonomic Mouse ($99) features a 57-degree vertical angle that allows for a ‘handshake’ grip for greater comfort.
Logitech’s MX Vertical Advanced Ergonomic Mouse ($99) features a 57-degree vertical angle that allows for a ‘handshake’ grip for greater comfort.

Reduce the odds you’ll suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries by choosing a computer mouse that’s comfortable for you. Mice should have a curved hump that fits and supports the contours of your palm. Many today are designed for both left- and right-handed users.

Wireless mice provide fewer movement restrictions than wired mice, allowing you to place them on the desk in a comfortable position. When you use a mouse, try to limit your wrist movement – instead, move your forearm, and with your elbow pivoted.

If you use a laptop with a trackpad, connect an external mouse for better wrist comfort.

“Ergonomic” mice are designed with your body in mind. For example, there's the Logitech’s MX Vertical Advanced Ergonomic Mouse ($99), a unique PC accessory with a 57-degree vertical angle that allows for a “handshake” grip for greater comfort.

If it’s still uncomfortable to use a mouse or if you experience wrist discomfort, try a trackball instead, as you simply roll your fingertips on the top of the peripheral.

Ergonomic keyboard, such as a few offered by Microsoft, could help reduce wrist strain as they are curved to naturally fit the natural resting angle of your wrists on a desk (tilted inward), and often with a split keyboard, too.
Ergonomic keyboard, such as a few offered by Microsoft, could help reduce wrist strain as they are curved to naturally fit the natural resting angle of your wrists on a desk (tilted inward), and often with a split keyboard, too.

When it comes to a keyboard for your desktop, choose an ergonomic keyboard that could help reduce wrist strain. These typically are curved to more naturally fit the angle of your wrists (place your hands on a desk and you’ll see they point inward). Some ergonomic keyboards have a split keyboard, too.

Recommendations include Microsoft’s Surface Ergonomic Keyboard or Sculpt Ergonomic Desktop. Both retail for just under $130) and offer a natural arc and slope.

If you’re on a laptop, you can always plug in a larger and more ergonomic keyboard when in one location for a while, such as a home office. Keep in mind, some small Chromebooks and iPad cases with keyboards generally have smaller keys, which could prove uncomfortable – and lead to typos.

If you’re on a laptop, you can always plug in a larger and more ergonomic keyboard when in one location for a while, such as a home office
If you’re on a laptop, you can always plug in a larger and more ergonomic keyboard when in one location for a while, such as a home office

Try to keep your wrists almost floating above the keyboard so your hands can easily move to reach far keys (e.g. the G or H keys) rather than mounting your palms in front of the keyboard and stretching to reach them. You might also consider a padded or gel wrist rest that sits in front of the keyboard.

Finally, learn keyboard shortcuts, reducing the need for multiple keystrokes.

Follow Marc on Twitter for his “Tech Tips of the Day” posts: @marc_saltzman. Email him or subscribe to his Tech It Out podcast at https://marcsaltzman.com/podcasts. The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Working from home giving you aches and pains? Here's how to fix that