Whether you’ll keep working from home or return to the office, the pandemic has shown us the importance of a safe, comfortable workspace. For many of us forced to do our jobs where we lived, that meant creating a makeshift station out of whatever space or supplies were available. Dining tables became desks, couches turned into seats, and computers replaced in-person interactions. Ergonomic mistakes led to discomfort and a myriad of common injuries.
This past school year, I taught science to 133 8th graders over Zoom. I started out a healthy 29-year-old who ate well, exercised three times a week, meditated, and saw friends on the weekends. Though I had a history of depression, I found ways to manage it. After nine months of remote teaching, I had back and neck pain, chronic stomach aches, a high baseline of anxiety, and, worst of all, agony in my shoulder that woke me up at night.
Seeing orthopedic surgeon Louis Peter Re, he remarked that my left shoulder was visibly slumped. He asked about my home desk setup. I told him that my laptop was raised with books, so whenever I typed, I reached up to the keyboard with my elbows flared out to the sides. He gave me a lecture in ergonomics 101, diagnosed me with tendonitis, and offered a shot of cortisone in the same spot I was vaccinated two months prior. Before the school year, I’d researched how to look good over Zoom to be a more engaging teacher. The articles I’d read recommended I stack books beneath my laptop until the camera was level with my eyes to avoid the unattractive upward chin angle. Shaking his head, Re said he wished people were more concerned with staying healthy than looking good on camera.
Along with the physical therapy exercises he recommended, I adjusted my work setup and interviewed experts. As companies and individuals increasingly adopt the remote working model, there are important adjustments you can make that will alleviate and prevent various injuries.
The Laptop Issue
Laptops are great for their portability but not as good when used as a permanent solution. With small computers, the screen is significantly below eye level, which means you are more prone to hunching over. The keyboard is not set at the edge of the desk, where it ideally should be. According to Re, this causes a “closed posture, and you can end up with strain on the neck, back, and shoulders.”
In my case, the screen was eye level after I placed my laptop on books, but I was still hunched over when I was typing. My flared-out elbows put strain on the front of my shoulders and caused painful tendonitis.
One solution is an external keyboard. “To correct this,” Re says, “I usually recommend getting a separate full-sized keyboard that’s either wired or Bluetooth.” Having the external keyboard allows you to raise your laptop without having to reach up to type. You can raise your laptop by stacking books or buying a laptop stand. The top of your laptop (or monitor) should be slightly above eye level. This setup will help to keep you from hunching over.
Find the Right Chair
After using a folding chair for too long, I pulled a muscle in my back. Physical therapist Melanie Karol said her husband also hurt himself by using a folding chair, which led to tingling in his leg. In our interview, Karol made it clear that it’s not only about choosing the right chair but using it correctly.
An ergonomic desk chair has adjustable height. Both Karol and Dr. Re emphasize the importance of keeping your chair the proper height, where your forearms, wrists, and hands are level with your desk and keyboard. Otherwise, you’ll strain your shoulders, neck, and back. The ideal ergonomic chair has adjustable lumbar support.
In the correct position, you should be in the back of the seat with two to four inches in between the front of the chair and the back of your knees, and your feet should be on the floor. Karol says, “If your feet are not flat on the ground, you’re going to scoot forward until your feet are flat. If you’re short like me, you’re going to have to get a step stool or put something underneath your feet.” This will push you back in the seat to get the proper support from the backrest.
Change Positions Often
Working in the same position for an extended time can lead to body fatigue. One way to change your position is by using a standing desk.
As someone who spends most of the day on his feet, Re says standing desks can reduce and prevent back pain. Using a standing desk at the proper height prevents the tendency to hunch over and keeps your arms and forearms at neutral.
The optimal ratio of sitting versus standing is 1:1 or 2:1. That means for every one to two hours of working in a chair, you should stand for at least one hour. You want to alternate between these positions every 30 to 60 minutes.
Although I don’t own a standing desk, I use a hightop table with a stack of books and an anti-fatigue mat, which is cushioned to encourage subtle movements of your feet and legs to improve blood flow. If you can’t invest in a standing desk at some point, a standing desk converter is a great alternative.
Home workouts are efficient, but it’s hard to know if you’re exercising correctly. The one time I did a Peloton high-intensity interval training (HIIT) home workout, I felt determined to keep up with the high-energy instructor. I mimicked her spider crawls, burpees, and donkey kicks—where I leaned forward on my hands and kicked my legs in the air like a donkey. The soreness in my muscles the next day felt normal, but the pain in my wrist did not.
The Peloton revolution comes with a special brand of injuries. Karol has seen neck and knee injuries from using the bike improperly. The same goes for people streaming yoga and pilates workouts on Instagram or other apps with no experts to correct your form or to keep you from overexertion.
Working out correctly can reduce anxiety, depression, and the risk of heart disease and stroke. Clinical psychologist Michael Tansey believes “exercise is always good for everyone. There are some people who hate the idea of it … but it doesn't take much. You can do calisthenics, jumping jacks, pushups, or ride a bike.” It’s particularly valuable for those working from home as a way of stepping away from the workstation, hitting the mental reset button, and supporting healthy blood circulation.
To work out at home, you need plenty of space and a proper surface, such as a mat. Also remember to wear proper footwear for your exercises and pay close attention to form by taking it slow. If you have access to one, working out with a trained professional (or taking video of your workouts and sending them to one) is ideal.
Make a Mind-Body Connection
If you’re ditching the office for the long haul, you should support yourself mentally as well as physically.
“Trying to resume interpersonal connections really matters,” Tansey says. Now that more people are vaccinated, seeing friends and family more often is one way to alleviate feelings of isolation. For those who are less social, going out to museums, movies, or walks through the park can create a sense of connection.
Along with exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep, Tansey has seen people benefit from adopting a pet. Having a furry friend around can be a great source of companionship, particularly if you spend a lot of time alone. He cautions people to consider the amount of time and attention a pet will need, but if you’re ready to make that commitment, it can be a bright light in your life.
As the shift to remote work persists, we have the opportunity to make informed decisions to protect our health. Even something as small as getting an external keyboard for your laptop can have a surprising effect on your well-being.