How to Set Up an Ergonomic Home Office

| COVID-19

Adult man smiling at computer


Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, almost five million Canadians have shifted to working from home. Including the people who were already working from home, there are 6.8 million in  all, or almost 40% of the workforce.

Working all day at a dining table or on a couch might have seemed acceptable back when nobody knew how long the situation would last. Over time, however, a less-than-optimal workspace can take a toll on the body. It’s worth taking the time to set up your office properly, if you haven’t already, especially since many of us expect to keep working from home even when the pandemic is over.

In honour of Occupational Therapy Month – and to relieve your aching back – we asked Andrea De Petrillo, Senior Occupational Therapist at Bayshore Therapy and Rehab, to share her tips for a comfortable and ergonomically sound home office.

Q: A lot of people are working from home during the pandemic. Do you have any tips for setting up a home office? 

A: Occupational therapists (OTs) can help. We do a lot of ergonomic assessments, virtually or in clients’ homes or workplaces. We make recommendations for modifying desk setups. A lot of people use laptops, but they are not the best ergonomically designed devices – they’re often positioned too low, causing neck pain. In general, try to follow the 90-90-90 rule: sit with your ankles, knees and hips at 90 degrees, and the top of your monitor at eye level. A second monitor and an external keyboard can help if you’re using a laptop. Sit high enough that your desk is an inch lower than your elbows. A lot of people are getting carpal tunnel because they’re sitting at high kitchen counters, putting pressure on their wrists and forearms.

Q: What other physical symptoms might people experience if their workstation isn’t set up correctly?

A: People may experience an increase in neck pain and headaches, depending on the position of their monitor. Low back pain is also very common when not using a properly fitted ergonomic desk chair.

Q: What’s your advice for choosing a good work chair?

A: Adjustability is key, especially if multiple family members will use the chair. You want it to have height adjustability, and the back rest should be able to go up and down and back and forth – a shorter person will need to move it forward, and a taller person will need to move it back. Arm rests should go up and down and swivel in and out, so whoever is using the chair can adjust all components to fit their body size. Keep anything you use regularly within arm’s reach, to prevent twisting and overreaching.

Q: What other advice do you offer to remote workers?

A: It’s very important to take short rest breaks when working on the computer for several hours at a time. I suggest taking a short stretch break for a couple of minutes every hour. Look away from the screen and focus on an object across the room to give your eyes a break. Stretch your neck side-to-side and look up and down. Rolling the shoulders helps to increase blood flow to this area, as well as stretching the arms overhead, and placing hands on the low back to arch the back and stretch the chest and the front of the shoulders. We tend to sit crouched over and leaning forward when sitting at a table with a laptop, so stretching the body in the opposite direction will help to prevent those muscles from getting too tight and short. I also suggest standing up and walking around every hour, even if it’s just to the washroom or kitchen. One great and easy way to prevent too much sitting is to work standing at a counter; this would mimic the function of a sit-stand desk.

Q: Do you have any tips for using smartphones and tablets safely?

A: When using these handheld devices, it’s quite common for people to experience wrist, forearm and joint pain in the thumbs and/or fingers. Try placing the device on the table or on an angled tablet/phone holder to reduce the sustained weight in your hands. If the holder can be placed at a greater height or is height-adjustable, this can also help to reduce sustained forward neck flexion, which can lead to neck and shoulder pain. If the tablet can be connected to an external monitor and keyboard, that would be optimal in terms of ergonomic positioning. It’s also important to enlarge the font size on those small screens to reduce eye strain. If you’re speaking on a smartphone for long durations of time, use earbuds or a headset so you can talk hands-free and keep your head in an upright, neutral position to reduce neck strain.

Q: How can people prevent or relieve eye strain from using screens?

A: Look away from the screen for about 30 seconds every hour. It’s important to turn away from the screen and blue light, and to focus on an object across the room. Telephone calls are another easy way of giving your eyes a break; if you don’t need to be on the computer during the call, take this time to turn away and look across the room while speaking.

Q: How might working remotely affect an employee’s mental health, and what tips can you share?

A: People tend to feel more socially isolated working from home, especially those who are used to working with a team and having regular in-person contact with their colleagues. We tend to miss the little conversations that happen “around the water cooler” when we are on teleconference meetings rather than meeting in person or just being around people all day. I suggest going for a walk or at least getting outside during the lunch hour. Vitamin D can work wonders for our mental health, as can regular exercise and social interaction. I have some clients who schedule quick lunch breaks with family members/friends/roommates who are also working from home. Turning on the video feature of a teleconference can help you feel like you’re connecting with people more than simply speaking over the phone. Staying connected with your colleagues as best you can will help to relieve the feeling of being socially isolated or alone.

Read our conversation with Andrea about the profession of occupational therapy.

Learn more about Bayshore Therapy and Rehab’s occupational therapy services or call us at 1-877-289-3997