Millions of Americans worked from home for more than a year because of the pandemic. A recent CBS News poll found that about 40% of Americans plan to continue working from home at least part time.
Poor work ergonomics lead to an array of musculoskeletal disorders which are the top reasons people miss work, according to the US Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA). Ergonomic mistakes can also cause fatigue, poor posture, headaches, and weight gain.
If you plan to continue working from home even part time, make sure you’re avoiding these mistakes.
Adjust Your Work to Fit Your Body
Ergonomics is the study of how people work in their environment with goal of optimizing human wellbeing and performance, eliminating discomfort, and reducing risk of injury. Ergonomists meet this goal by fitting the job to your body, so you don’t get hurt.
Since many of us work on a computer, we asked ergonomic expert and Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) Tracy Rodriguez about the worst mistakes you can make in an office centered around a computer. Her team of masters-level ergonomists and physical therapists in the Work Pain Free Program help people find the root causes of discomfort, pain, and injuries. These are the most common causes of pain they see.
Side note: If you need help lifting, moving things, and other manual material handling, check out this booklet from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It offers in-depth ergonomic tips and solutions.
Home Ergonomic Mistakes to Avoid
- Not paying attention to your angles. When you sit at a computer, your monitor should be directly in front of your eyes, so you’re not looking downward. Typing, your arms should be at a 90-degree angle. Your knees should be at a 90 to 110-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor or a foot stool.
- You use a laptop without an external keyboard. Without an external keyboard, your angles cannot be correct. You are either looking down at a screen or reaching up to type with the laptop on a platform. Rodriguez explains that these practices cause your neck and upper shoulder muscles to get tight and often lead to Upper Crossed Syndrome.
- Not investing in a great chair and desk. Without the right chair and desk, you’ll likely not have the correct angles when you work. Your chair should be fully adjustable in height, arm rest support, and neutral lumbar support, says Rodriguez. A sit-to-stand desk is also hugely helpful because you can change positions to avoid inflammation or fatigue, she adds.
- Sitting with rounded shoulders. “Our bodies are always listening to what we tell them to do,” Rodriguez explains. “When we perform repetitive motions like sitting, standing and sleeping, our muscles learn to form to new lengths and stay there. So, the more that we sit with rounded shoulders, the more that our neck muscles learn to be short and tight. It is the number one cause of pain while people work.” Try these stretches to open your shoulders.
- Not taking movement breaks often enough. Tension stems from working in one position too long. Our bodies need a movement break every 30-60 minutes! Moving will decrease tension building in your body. Plus, you’ll be able to realign your angles when you return. Rodriguez suggests getting a glass of water, moving in ways that feel good, using a lacrosse or tennis-sized ball for self-myofascial release, or resting. These videos of self-myofascial release from a physical therapist may help you release tension.
- Pushing past tension to pain. We think it’s okay to push past tension and keep working, but that pushes our bodies into an inflammation cycle and the pain escalates, Rodriguez warns. When you feel tension, it’s a 'check engine light' from your body, she adds.
- Ignoring pain. Disregarding pain caused by poor work ergonomics can cause systemic inflammatory response syndrome (SIRS) and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is an important part of the immune system’s healing process, as we discussed in our series on chronic inflammation, but you can develop chronic inflammation when an injury doesn’t heal, or the body is continuously stressed. Both conditions have serious ramifications.
- Not asking for ergonomic help from your employer. Rodriguez says most companies will cover costs of ergonomic needs because they benefit from protecting employees from injury. The Work Pain Free Program specialists help people get their services and equipment covered when needed. Start by talking to your human resources representative. A doctor or physical therapist can also help you get insurance coverage for equipment and services.