How to make your home office work for you

May 11, 2020

5 mins

How to make your home office work for you
Janine Thomas

Writer and editor

Sore back? Headache? Stiff neck? Blame working from home. The Covid-19 lockdown has forced millions of Britons to create makeshift offices in bedrooms, lounges, and even garden sheds across the nation. A day or two slouched on your sofa in front of a laptop isn’t going to hurt, but when the days turn into weeks, it can cause long-term damage. Here’s how to create a healthy home workspace – and keep aches and pains at bay.

Sit in a chair and reach for your keyboard. Can you feel the way your spine rounds forward and your chin juts out? Try jiggling a computer mouse. Do you notice the tension in your neck, shoulder, and wrist?

Computer use puts our bodies under stress. A recent study revealed that 78% of office employees experience backache, knee pain, and joint issues. Back pain is top of the list, affecting nearly half of all office workers, while a fifth get tingly, numb hands due to all that typing. If this is how our poor bodies feel in the office, where professional equipment and workstation assessments are de rigueur, imagine what we are putting them through working from home.

The combination of lockdown and working from home has made us more sedentary too. Before Covid-19 arrived, the average Briton was already spending seven and a half hours sitting down every day thanks to their desk jobs, cars and screen time. Now it may be even worse. There’s no walk to the bus stop, coffee run, or trip along the corridor to the loo. Incidental exercise — the small movements that accumulate during the day to increase your level of daily activity — has plummeted, hence the dramatic drop in your step count. Prolonged sitting is a killer. Increasing evidence links sedentary lifestyles to obesity, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal issues, and early death.

During the lockdown, screen time has ramped up, both professionally and personally. Hands up if you had even heard of Zoom before the pandemic? Now more than 300 million people take part in Zoom meetings every single day. Add video calls to our regular computer work and many of us are staring at a screen for work for at least eight hours a day. Our virtual life continues in the evening with online fitness classes, Houseparty drinks with friends, or another Netflix binge. It’s hardly surprising that 80% of us are consuming more content in the form of broadcast TV, online videos and TV streaming since lockdown began.

All this extra sitting and staring at screens means it’s more important than ever to make sure you stay fit and healthy. To optimize your work-from-home (WFH) set-up to help you do this.

Home office ergonomics

Some companies are sending IT equipment, such as computers and monitors, out to employees in an effort to improve their home office set-up. This, however, is not compulsory at the moment. Due to the temporary nature of the lockdown, the Health and Safety Executive states that there is no need for HR managers to organize home workstation assessments. If you want to stay pain-free, it’s time for some DIY desk ergonomics:

  • Chair: Choose a chair that supports the natural curves of the spine. Your feet should be flat on the floor and the knees at a right angle. If your feet don’t reach the floor, arrange a few big books as a makeshift footrests.
  • Monitor: Position your screen roughly an arm’s length away. The top of the screen should be about eye level. Avoid eye strain by matching the screen brightness to your surroundings.
  • Table: Make sure you can use the keyboard with your wrists straight, hands at or below elbow height.

The perils of laptops

Laptops are to blame for many WFH postural issues. They aren’t meant for prolonged use because the all-in-one design means you can’t help but hunch over to see the screen while typing. One university study found that 77.3% of laptop users reported some sort of musculoskeletal complaint; neck pain was the most common (60.3%), followed by wrist issues (27.3%) and shoulder trouble (26%).

Make your laptop more ergonomically friendly by placing it on a table and raising it up slightly with a large book or a chopping board.

Avoid slouching by using a separate screen or keyboard if possible. A mouse is very helpful if you’re experiencing shoulder or wrist issues.

Posture prompts

Poor posture can cause a range of health issues, from chronic pain to headaches and digestive issues. For a simple posture check, sit comfortably in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Feel the crown of your head move towards the ceiling as the spine lengthens. Relax your shoulders well away from the ears. Run your tongue between your teeth to soften the jaw. This is the comfortably seated posture you are aiming for.

The trouble is, after a while, you forget and slip back into old postural habits.

Write the following reminders on a Post-It note and stick it to your screen:

  • Relax shoulders
  • Lengthen spine
  • Uncross legs
  • Smile!

Take a stand

Standing desks are the latest trend in offices across the country. Studies show that a sit-stand desk can reduce upper back and neck pain and even improve mood. They’re a bit like Marmite: you either love them or hate them.

Standing all day at a desk can bring its own postural problems in the same way sitting, so try alternating between the two. You don’t need a swish standing desk to work on your feet. Find a suitable surface—a kitchen counter, for example—add a couple of books or a box depending on your height, and place your computer on top of them.

… Or get creative

Shake off conventional office notions — you can work wherever you want now! Ease stiffness and stagnation by moving your home office around the house: lie on the floor, try different tables and chairs, perch at a kitchen counter, or sit on the floor. Avoid staying in one position for too long and your body will reap the benefits.

Let’s get physical

Keep your body moving: think little and often. Set a timer so you take movement breaks every hour. Choose between the following:

Mechanical breaks

Don’t just shuffle over to the coffee machine; take the same number of steps as you would if you were in the office to get to, say, the canteen.

Keep hydrated

Drink more water and you’ll need more loo breaks.

Stretch it out

Break tension with these three simple desk exercises.

  • 1. Arm raise: Sit with your feet on the floor and lengthen the spine. Interlock the fingers and swing your arms overhead. Turn your palms to the ceiling and straighten the elbows. Take three breaths and enjoy a burst of energy as you stretch the muscles in your back, chest, wrists, and shoulders.
  • 2. Neck release: Relax the face and shoulders. Move your head to the right, ear towards your shoulder. Gently place your right hand on the side of your head to encourage the stretch. Hold for three breaths. Repeat on the other side to feel tension melt from the neck and shoulders.
  • 3. Chest opener: Take your arms behind your back, bend the elbows, and bring each hand towards the opposite elbow. Engage your abdominal muscles and tuck in the chin. Stay for five breaths to combat slouching.

Maximise outdoor time

Use your exercise allowance to break up the working day. This boosts metabolism and regulates blood sugar and pressure. There is increasing evidence that cardio exercise improves concentration levels and mental clarity, so a lunchtime jog might help combat the afternoon slump. Finally, regular exercise will help your body to stay supple and strong, which makes it less susceptible to aches and pains. No excuses now, pull your trainers on.

Exercise your eyes

We normally blink 20 times a minute, yet this drops to between three and seven blinks when we’re staring at a screen. Studies show that reduced blinking can lead to dryness, which is why your eyes are especially sore after back-to-back Zoom calls. Try the 20-20-20 rule to avoid eye strain. Every 20 minutes, look up for 20 seconds and focus on an object at least 20ft away. If a timer isn’t enough, download the eyeCare app to remind you to make those screen breaks.

… And breathe

Melt away physical tension with a few slow, mindful breaths. Breathing through the nose, inhale to the count of six and exhale to the count of six. You’ll feel the difference immediately.

Next time you find yourself hunched over your laptop with a thumping headache, get up, get moving, and reassess your home workspace. Your body will thank you for it.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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