As the coronavirus began to spread around the country at the beginning of this year, America’s white-collar workers migrated en masse from their cubicles, offices, and conference rooms to their living rooms, dens, and kitchens. Card tables and folding chairs replaced ergonomic office chairs and desks. Smaller laptop screens took the place of multi-monitor setups.
And many of us are still there, working from our improvised home workspaces.
It’s not just about the pandemic. Before this year, a significant portion of American workers were already working from home at least some of the time. Many more wanted to work from home, attracted by the flexibility.
The odds are, by the time the pandemic recedes permanently, plenty of employees will have sworn off their commutes for good.
Unfortunately, most people aren’t prepared to work safely from home for extended periods of time. We don’t often think about it, but when improperly outfitted, office workstations can be occupational safety hazards–and that goes double for home workspaces, which typically lack the ergonomics planning of their office space counterparts.
“Working in a static environment doesn’t seem to immediately pose health risks,” explained Mary Stoesser, a board-certified professional ergonomist with VelocityEHS. “But over time, discomfort can lead to pain and the development of soft-tissue injuries or musculoskeletal disorders.”
Many of the harmful effects of static workstations come from not getting enough movement throughout the day. According to a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona, employees with open bench-style seating were 32 percent more physically active throughout the workday than their counterparts in private offices and 20 percent more active than those walled off in cubicles. These employees were not only more physically active, but also reported significantly lower perceived stress outside of the office, suggesting that workstation setup is an important factor in avoiding long-term health risks.
Equipment arrangements that put undue strain on backs, necks, wrists, and eyes can also be an underlying issue. “Some of the biggest problems stem from either a lack of employee awareness on how to set up the equipment that they do have properly or a lack of the proper equipment,” Stoesser said.
3 Workspace Ergonomics Myths
Office furniture and equipment brands tend to use the word “ergonomic” more as a marketing buzzword than a description for something that has been rigorously tested and proven effective. A result is a number of widespread myths about office ergonomics, many of which do more harm than good.
A few of the more pernicious myths include:
Ergonomic Equipment Can Perform Miracles
Purchasing high-quality ergonomic office furniture and equipment is only the first step. All the ergonomics in the world won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to configure your new equipment.
“Even if it’s a really nice, highly-adjustable chair, if it’s not adjusted properly, then having the right equipment just doesn’t help,” Stoesser said. She noted that the same thing applies to accessories like monitors and keyboards. “If none of that is adjusted properly to fit the actual user at the workstation, then that’s where we start to see injuries.”
Exercise Balls Are Chairs
Exercise balls can be great for building core strength in the gym. But for long-term sitting, they’re less than ideal.
“We know that if you’re going to be sitting for a prolonged period of time, you want to have back support,” Stoesser said. “With an exercise ball, you're contracting a lot of muscles, and you're actually not supporting the full weight of your body.”
The Proper Seated Posture for Working Is Stick Straight
Sitting with your back as straight as a plank is not just tiring. It can be harmful. It’s better to recline slightly at your seated workstation.
“You reduce more load off of your back that way,” Stoesser told us.
Improving the Ergonomics of Home Workspaces
In a perfect world, employers would have had the time to organize an orderly transition to working from home. But the virus caught us all by surprise, leading to millions of employees working from home with little warning and no time to set up a healthy and safe workspace.
Now that it seems many employees will remain at home for months to come, the best thing employers can do is raise awareness that ergonomics matters at home as much as they do in the office.
Start by sharing the basic principles of ergonomics. You can do this by hosting remote training sessions, distributing helpful guides, such as this one from VelocityEHS, or sharing educational videos like the one below home office ergonomics.
You may also choose to offer your employees at-home remote consultations or coaching sessions with ergonomics experts. Consultations can be particularly helpful for employees who are already feeling the strain from poor workspace arrangements. Consultants can help your employees adjust their current setup and identify the right ergonomic products to purchase.
“One-on-one consultations can prevent people from going too far down the wrong path, so you can correct issues before they become long-term problems,” Stoesser said.
Stoesser said that her company raised awareness of at-home ergonomics by inviting employees to share pictures of their creative work-from-home setups with each other. Stoesser shared her “at-home hack:” using an ironing board to elevate her laptop and transform her kitchen island into a standing desk.
“You don’t have to be restrained to fancy or expensive equipment,” she said. “There are little things you can do with items you already have at home to make sure you meet the basic requirements for a comfortable setup.”
Top 3 Priorities for a Healthy Home Workspace
With a few well-chosen investments, you can help your employees transform their workspaces from painful to pleasant and productive. Here are the three most essential pieces of equipment you can offer to buy for them:
A keyboard and a mouse.
Laptops force us to hunch over to see the screen while typing. Purchasing separate keyboards and mice for your employees will help reduce shoulder tension and stress in their upper bodies.
A monitor and/or laptop stand.
Similarly, a standalone monitor or a laptop stand can help raise their screens to eye level, so employees are not straining their necks looking up or down.
A decent chair.
Almost anything is better than sitting for eight hours in a wooden kitchen chair. At a minimum, employees should have something with back support. You can start with lumbar support cushions or extra chair cushions. If you have additional room in the budget, there are a lot of options for quality chairs for $200 or less.
Ergonomics Is the Solution, Not the Problem
Poor at-home work setups aren’t just uncomfortable for your employees. They can have a direct negative impact on your company’s bottom line.
Strain in your employees’ wrists, backs, and necks can become injuries, which can worsen into chronic issues. Your employees may miss more work, and their productivity will suffer as they fight through the pain.
Stoesser told us she likes to think of ergonomics as a solution, not a problem. The real problem is workspaces that aren’t designed for the people working in them.
“The most basic definition of ergonomics would be fitting the workspace to the worker, fitting the design to the person who's actually doing the job,” she said.