If you’re working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a good chance that you were not fully prepared to move your entire office and workspace to your house. Spending a few hours properly assessing your workspace and setting up an ergonomic home office may be necessary to keep you happy—and healthy.
Having general knowledge about home office ergonomics can help you design the right space for maximum efficiency. Even more, it can help you decrease the risk of developing repetitive strain injuries or any unwanted body pain.
Common Office-Related Pain
Conditions that may arise from working in a position that places undue stress and strain on your body may include:
- Low back pain
- Neck pain
- Eye strain
- Shoulder pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Knee pain
- Hip pain
If you are working from home and start to develop any pain, adjust your position and workspace. If you continue having problems, you may benefit from contacting your physician or a physical therapist to help you move better and feel better. Your PT may be able to assess your current home office and make some suggestions for better ergonomics.
Choosing a Space at Home
Everyone’s living situation is different. Wherever you set up your home office, try to find a space that offers:
- Adequate lighting
- Easy access to power and internet
If you are setting up your home office in a bedroom, use a table or desk near outlets with an adjustable office chair for good postural support. While it may be tempting to work while sitting up in bed, you should avoid doing this. It may place your back and neck in a forward-bent position, leading to excessive stress and strain.
A typical kitchen or dining room table height is about 28 to 30 inches, so the height of your table should be fine for setting up your home office there.
If you have a higher cafe-style kitchen table, you need to use a chair that allows you to sit higher while working. In that case, you may also need a small box or stack of books to place your feet upon to keep your hips and knees in an optimum position while working.
If you live in a small studio apartment, you may have to get a bit creative when setting up your home office. Find an area of your apartment that is free from clutter and is close to electrical outlets.
If you do not have a desk, you may consider purchasing a small one. Use an adjustable chair while working at your desk.
Refrain from sitting on your bed while working. If you use a couch as your seat, you may want to use pillows to help recreate the kind of support an office chair would provide.
If you do not have space for—or access to—a desk, there are creative ways to make an ergonomic work station:
- Ironing board: An ironing board may serve as an adjustable-height work surface.
- Countertop: A kitchen counter can be a useful standing desk.
- Textbooks: If you have a lot of larger books, you can create a sturdy “desk.” Remove books from a shelf and take that shelf out of the bookcase. Stack the books up on the floor, then place the shelf on top of the book stack (make sure it’s level). Try to make the stack about 29 inches tall, which is an appropriate height for sitting. Books stacked on top of an upside-down laundry basket can also help you achieve this height if you don’t have a removable shelf.
Existing Home Office
If you already have an office in your home, simply check that your keyboard, monitor, and desk are the proper height and you are able to reach all the things you need while working. Remove any excess paper and clutter so you don’t get distracted.
One of the most important things you can do while setting up your home office is to create distance between your work and personal life. Have your own special workspace that is used exclusively (or mostly) for work. Keep your personal space separate. This is the best way to allow yourself to decompress after work.
Home Office Ergonomics
Ergonomics is the study of people’s interaction with their working environment. To create an effective ergonomic office, there are specific measurements and numbers that you should keep in mind, at least as a starting point.
Ideally, you should use a desktop computer. On their own, laptops and tablets do not allow you to separate the keyboard from the monitor, forcing you to look down at the screen while working. This may place excessive strain on your neck while working.
If you must use a laptop, perhaps consider purchasing either a separate monitor or a separate keyboard to connect to the laptop. That way your keyboard and monitor can be separate from one another, allowing you greater flexibility.
When seated at the computer, your elbows should be bent about 90 degrees and your forearms should be directly in front of you. Your computer keyboard should be directly in front of you and in line with your arms and wrists.
The height of your desk should be between 25 and 30 inches, with the optimum height of 28.5 inches, plus or minus 1 inch. However, these are soft guidelines that will vary with your height.
- If it feels too short: Use risers under the desk legs to raise it up.
- If it feels too tall: Lowering a tall desk may be difficult, so you may need to use a higher chair if your desk is greater than 30 inches tall.
Place your computer monitor directly in front of you. When looking at your monitor, the top third of the screen should be at eye level.
You may need to get creative when adjusting the monitor height. Sometimes a small stack of books can be used to ensure the monitor is at the proper level when working. The monitor should be about 18 to 24 inches from your nose.
Chair Position and Design
The optimum office chair seat height is between 16 and 20 inches. However, what’s right for you is still dependent upon your height and the height of your desk.
- The chair height should be adjustable. When seated, your feet should be flat on the floor and your knees should be at a 90-degree angle. If your feet are dangling, you should use a small box, step stool, or stack of books to rest your feet on.
- The backrest should provide adequate lumbar support. (Your lumbar spine has a forward curve in it called a lordosis. Supporting this forward curve with a lumbar roll may be necessary to ease strain on your low back.) The backrest should be upright with a slight backwards lean of about 5 to 10 degrees.
- The armrests on your chair should be adjustable too and should gently support your forearms when your elbows are bent about 90 degrees.
- The depth of your seat should be about 17 to 24 inches. When your back is against the chair’s backrest, there should be 2 or 3 inches of space between the back of your knees and the seat.
Sitting vs. Standing
There has been much debate over whether you should sit or stand at your workspace. Some people have even started using sit-to-stand work stations and are spending quite a bit of time standing while working. This is meant to relieve stress and strain on your low back and neck.
Research comparing standing and sitting while working at a computer is varied. Some studies indicate that standing may be superior, while others show that sitting in the correct position is best.
Most experts agree that the ability to spend some time sitting and some time standing while working is optimum for musculoskeletal health.1
You may want to investigate ways to create a home office setup that allows you to change between a sitting and standing position:
- Purchase an adjustable desktop: Devices like the VariDesk sit atop your current desk or table and allow you to quickly adjust your work station from a sitting height to a standing height. Prices are usually in the $300 to $400 range.
- Make your own stand up work station. Consider placing your current desk on risers. You could use stacks of books or wooden blocks under your desk legs to make your desk taller. Use a level to ensure that your work surface is level. Another DIY option is to use an old box to elevate your computer and monitor so you can work standing up. Get creative! This option is best if you are using a laptop for work; moving a desktop and monitor to a box on your desk may prove to be difficult and more trouble than its worth.
When sitting or standing, be mindful of maintaining an upright posture while you work:
- Your low back should have a slight forward curve
- Your ears should remain directly over your shoulders
- Your shoulders should remain over your hips
It may be helpful to set an alarm to ring every hour to remind you to sit up properly while working. The slouch-overcorrect exercise is also a great maneuver to do to remind yourself to sit with proper posture.
Make Time For Exercise
One of the most important things you can do while working from home and practicing COVID-19 physical distancing is to make time to exercise. Exercising can keep your heart and lungs healthy, and it may help decrease aches and pains that occur from performing desk work each and every day.
Thirty minutes of exercise each day can also help elevate your mood and promote feelings of well-being, something that may be important during these uncertain times. Exercises that you can be doing include:
- Going for a solitary walk or jog
- Bike riding
- Low back stretches
- Postural stretches
- Neck stretches
- Bodyweight strengthening exercises
By being creative and using items around the house for exercise, you can be sure to keep your body moving and your mind sharp. Exercise may also help prevent repetitive strain injuries that may occur while spending countless hours at your home office work station.
A Word From Verywell
Taking a few moments to ensure that your home office is set up properly can help you reduce repetitive stress and strain while working. This can minimize pain, improve posture, and improve your overall productivity while working.
Sooner or later, the coronavirus pandemic will end and we will be able to return to our familiar work situations. But for now, make sure your home office is set up properly. That way, you can avoid aches and pains that only add physical burden to an already emotionally overwhelming time.
By Brett Sears, PT, MDT, a physical therapist with over 15 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.