RUTH TAM, HOST:
If your home has suddenly become your office and your workday has slowly seeped into your personal life, you know the toll it can take on your body and your ability to do your job well. As the pandemic has many people working from home for an undetermined amount of time, more people are paying attention to home office ergonomics not just to get through the workday comfortably but to protect their overall health.
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Ruth Tam. On this episode, home office ergonomics - basically, how to work from home without hurting yourself. Like a lot of people, this pandemic's had me working from home. Because I'm not going back to my office anytime soon, I needed to figure out how to level up my home office setup.
I'm kind of embarrassed to tell you that the first day that I worked from home during this pandemic, I worked on my laptop in bed (laughter).
MEG HONAN: And that's fine. Everyone does.
TAM: And I joked that I went from a standing desk at work to a working bed at home.
HONAN: I get that. It's great that you said that because there's really nothing wrong for being a little bit indulgent. Working on the couch, working in your bed - that's fine. The difficulty is now we're there all the time.
TAM: That's Meg Honan, an ergonomist at UC Berkeley's Center for Occupational and Environmental Health. I was pleasantly surprised that Meg didn't shame me into sitting up straight because - sorry, Mom - when has that ever worked? It's been months since I have moved from my bed to my desk. But I still experience a lot of discomfort and sometimes pain after long hours working in front of my computer. Meg says that's pretty common, but that doesn't mean that we all have to put up with it.
HONAN: Everyone just went home, and they just plopped their laptop on top of a table - a desk or a table. And our dining room table, our desks - they tend to be pretty high. So by the time you've got the laptop on the desk, the keyboard is actually way too high for your arms to use comfortably. And then the monitor, which is attached, is way too low for you to be able to see well. So people end up in this position, this body position, that they look kind of like a bug or a praying mantis with their head bent down and their arms - our arms up high.
And it takes a long time for our bodies to tell us. And long before we have aches and pains, you get unnecessary fatigue in your neck and your back, and your brain's not working as well as it could. So a lot of the reasons to be a little more thoughtful about everybody's setup at home is so that they can kind of sit back, relax, get some support for their body and allow their brain to sort of be at their best, you know, while they're working.
TAM: I love that you brought up that image of a praying mantis because it's funny how crouched you can get in a very uncomfortable position and then not realize it until later. I was on a walk last week, and I saw this, like - this very tall, overgrown, like, sunflower. And the head of the flower was just totally drooped down because it was so heavy. And I was like, that's probably what I look like when I'm sitting at my desk.
HONAN: That's me.
TAM: Yeah. It was, like, a sad reminder. Like, when you see someone sitting, slouching and, you know, crouching over their desk, it's very easy to identify. And then it's so hard to kind of catch it when you're doing it yourself.
HONAN: Yeah. I think the most common pitfall is that people work directly off their laptop all day every day, and that's just not a good match for what works well for the body. It's a real setup to get achy, to get sore, to get tired. And so coming up with a way to get your monitor and your keyboard separated so they can both be at a better height and to use an external mouse so that you don't have to be using that touchpad all day - that gets hard on the hand.
TAM: We've all got different body types and needs, you know? What kind of checklist should we run through to gauge, like, our comfort level no matter where we're sitting or standing?
HONAN: First off, tables tend to be too high. If we think back to the days of the old computer desks, they were a lot lower than a writing desk. So actually, the best height for your arms to work is really around 26, 27 inches from the ground. And most of our tables are, like, 29 or 30 inches tall, so that means we have to lift up our shoulders, right? And we're straining our shoulders, straining our arms and straining our neck. So what you want to do when you're working at home is to put some kind of cushion under your seat so that you can raise yourself high enough that it feels like your arms are kind of relaxed by your side and you don't need to shrug your shoulders when you sit.
Now, when you've raised yourself up, if you have a chair that adjusts, good for you. If not, you can just put a pillow on it. But the problem when you raise yourself up is now your feet aren't on the floor. When your feet aren't supported, that's really hard on your low back. So the next thing you have to do is, if you've raised yourself up and your feet aren't on the floor, is get something under your feet. Getting support on your feet is as important as getting your arms high enough.
TAM: And what about younger people or students at home?
HONAN: So if you're big enough, all the principles will apply to adults and to some high school and college people. When we get down to the little folks, we've got to pay very close attention because they're now home all day. They're missing recess. They're missing running around with their friends in most cases. So a lot of what happens at school breaks up their activity.
So for your kids, you know, you really want to set up a variety of positions for them. They may not be best off at a desk because there's a lot of adjustment you have to do to a 10-year-old or an 8-year-old to be able to get them to sit at a desk chair. So other things that people do is they'll take, like, an ironing board. You can put an ironing board down to the floor level, and a kid can sit like they naturally want to sit - cross-legged. And, again, it brings up the laptop to a higher level so that they can see and they can work better.
You know, another thing is that if you put a wedge behind the back of your laptop - so in other words, you kind of angle the keyboard up a little bit and you raise up the monitor an inch or so - that can be a much more relaxed position for a kid to work at or an adult for short periods of time.
TAM: Yeah, I tried this recently. I put my eyeglass case underneath my laptop where the screen and the keyboard are, like, hinged together. And it boosted up my laptop, and I didn't have to go out and get a laptop stand or anything. And it was a nice change of pace.
HONAN: You know, that's wonderful. I always used to carry around - I wear glasses as well. So I would always - when I would work, I would bring my glasses case. It would be in my bag. And so I'd put it under the back of my monitor just like that. And just getting the monitor up that inch or so makes a big difference.
TAM: Obviously, not everybody works the kind of job that requires you to be sitting in an office all day. But for people who normally work nine-to-five office-type jobs, is there an ideal position to be sitting in all day?
HONAN: Well, that's a great question because the ideal is not to sit all day.
HONAN: There's a famous ergonomist that says the next posture is the best posture. So a lot of what we talk about with people is to change it up. Make sure you get the change of pace. And one of the odd things, the strange things, about working at home is even when people work in offices, they would get up. They would go to lunch. They would go to meetings. They'd go get a cup of coffee, go to the restroom. When people are working at home, even though it feels a lot more luxurious and you're not so tied down, you're actually far more sedentary than when you're in an office. So reminding yourself to get up, to move around, to go take a walk just to get a change of position for your body is actually more important for the people that are now working from home all the time.
TAM: And how can you tell the difference between passing discomfort, like kind of a normal bodily ache, and then something that's a little bit more serious, like a repetitive stress injury or maybe something that's worse?
HONAN: If a person has some aches and pains at the end of a workday and they go away overnight or maybe you take a weekend off and everything is just fine, that's not pain to be concerned about. When your pain continues to build over the course of a week or doesn't go away overnight or doesn't go away on a vacation or on a weekend off, that's when you need to really pay attention because that means the stress you're putting into your body and your muscles and your tendons - they're not recovering overnight, and you're starting to sustain something that would be more worrisome and really needs your attention. So don't wait that long, you know? Don't wait for that because by the time you're feeling pain and discomfort, you've already paid the price.
TAM: I don't know about you, but I - when I start working, I kind of get locked in. And I feel like, oh, OK, I'm going to be sitting here. I'm going to, like, turn out this script or write this piece. And I'm - all of a sudden, two hours have gone by, and I've been sitting in the same place for that amount of time. Do you have any ideas or tips or suggestions for how to break up bad habits like that?
HONAN: When you work on a computer, you're really working on what you see, and you're incredibly engaged. So people get in the zone, or they just get very engaged in a way that you just wouldn't do in other areas. So you have to make some - you have to get some tricks for yourself. Like, for example, if the phone rings, stand up and talk on the phone. You're going to be in an hour-long Zoom, and you've been sitting for hours and hours. Maybe you want to take your laptop and put it up on a countertop, put it up on your dresser so that you can stand up when you're on the Zoom. And you don't have to be so engaged in typing and using your mouse, so that's a nice change of pace.
TAM: I like how so far, we haven't talked too much about products, and most of this stuff is pretty behavioral. But let's talk about the products. I know that there are a lot of pricy solutions out there, a lot of thousand-dollar chairs, hundred-dollar standing desks and fancy computer mouses. Like an ironing board, are there solutions at home that won't require you to spend money?
HONAN: Yeah. Another way to change it up is to sit in an armed chair that you have - you know, a chair with two arms - that's in your family room or your dining room. If you have a set of shelves and you're not using one of the shelves, you know, they tend to be wide enough that it would kind of stretch across the two arms. So that way, you can not have a laptop on your lap. You're raising it up. And you can sit back in the chair, enjoy the position you're working in, put your feet up or sit cross-legged if you'd like. As long as you don't have a laptop in your lap and your legs are not serving like a table, you can be in that position, you know, and be comfortable for some length of time. That's a great way to change it up.
TAM: And if you do want to buy something new, what do you generally think is worth spending money on?
HONAN: First thing I would get, actually, is an external mouse and maybe an external keyboard because now your monitor screen is free from the keyboard and the mouse. So that tends to help people get rid of that praying mantis, forward-bent look so you're not blocked working on that touchpad all day. Now, with the chair - as long as the chair you have at home has enough adjustability - and that would be that it adjusts in height. And if you want a little more from the chair, sometimes a seat pan can get longer or shorter or that low back area is adjustable so that it can fit into your low back. That's really the basics that you need.
TAM: What about flexible seating like a yoga ball or something like that?
HONAN: Yeah. You know, again, anything is great for a change of pace. One of the difficulties about sitting on a yoga ball for all of the time is that, again, a lot of the support that we're trying to get is support so you can offload the weight of your back because we sit for a long period of time. And actually, when you're typing, when you're on the computer, what we've learned is that people are actually typing, actively typing, about 25% or 30% of the time. The rest of the time, they're reading, and they're thinking, and they're pondering.
So having a place to unload the weight of your back and unload the weight of your arms while you're doing those activities is something that a yoga ball can't help. They're great for the active sitting posture, but I'll tell you, if someone tries to sit up straight on the edge of a chair or on a yoga ball, they might look fine for half an hour, for an hour, but you can slump like mad crazy on any of these devices as well - so a great change of pace but not really a substitute for a chair that can support your back.
TAM: Do you have any recommendations for good stretches for the workday?
HONAN: I think the best stretch is just to change your position, honestly. You know, if you think about - if you're bent over like a praying mantis for a number of hours, what would be the best stretch? Well, put yourself into a position like you're a starfish. Get up. Put your arms back. You know, allow your body to use its normal range of motion, not just the part that curls up like a ball. Walking is a great change of pace for the body. If you're able to get outside, that's a great way to kind of reset your joints and your muscles and just give your body a change of pace. So building in some kind of a change of position into the day - maybe working upright for half an hour - would be great.
TAM: One reason why we should pay attention to ergonomics these days is that it helps you work better, and it helps you become a better product. And I think one thing that I struggle with is, because there is no separation between my life, my personal life and my work because it's all combined right now - that I'm becoming more of a product than I am remembering who I am as, like, a human being.
HONAN: I'm glad you brought that up. This idea of productivity - it's always lingering in the back of our minds. I'm not trying to imply that all a person is is a productive product sitting on the shop floor. It's just saying that if you can be at your best when you're working, then you can get your work done - good work done - in the easiest amount of time, the shortest amount of time. And that allows you more time for everything else that makes you you.
TAM: OK, so there you have it. The way you sit or stand to work ripples out throughout the rest of your life. You want to feel comfortable and supported, so try taking a picture of yourself at your home office setup and see what things you can tweak. And if you're working home for the long haul and you have the means to do so, invest in things like an external mouse and keyboard, and prop your monitor up at eye level. Lastly, remember to get up, stretch and move around. Maybe set a timer to remind yourself.
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TAM: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one about how to make long-distance relationships work. You can find that at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter. If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is our senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Ruth Tam. Thanks for listening.
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