By now, you’ve probably settled into a new routine for work during the COVID-19 pandemic. With many companies asking employees to continue to work from home, folks have had to find spots around the house where they can try to focus and be productive. For some, that means sitting in an ergonomically designed office chair in a room with a lockable door. For others, this has meant cradling a laptop on one knee, and an infant on the other, while answering emails at the breakfast table or on the couch.
But, whether you are still going into a formal office setting, have the space for a dedicated home office or have had to improvise, it’s always important to be mindful of your body and its posture as you work.
The clinicians in Massachusetts General Hospital’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery treat all types of work-related musculoskeletal injuries and conditions, from sore necks and backs, to carpal tunnel syndrome, to stubbed or broken toes and beyond. Here, they offer some easy ergonomic tips and tricks that should enable you to design the optimal work-from-home setup for a healthy body and mind.
Positioning the Body for Productivity
From the top of your head to the tips of your toes, how you position your body affects your comfort and ability to focus and can help combat fatigue. Below is some advice, grouped by the part of the body it concerns. This is meant to be an informational overview. If you have any chronic or acute pain, contact your doctor right away.
Feet/Ankles: According to Gregory Waryasz, MD, foot and ankle surgeon and Mass General Brigham sports medicine specialist, it’s best to sit with your feet planted and knees bent when working. It’s important to select comfortable footwear and shoes that are not tight or restrictive. Intermittent movement throughout the day is important as well, and Dr. Waryasz highlights the convenience of modern exercise equipment that can be integrated with your home office setup, like treadmill desks and yoga ball "chairs."
Hips/Torso/Spine: According to Daniel Tobert, MD, orthopedic spine surgeon, sitting after a long day of hard work is a well-earned respite. But too much of a good thing can be problematic, and if you spend the majority of your day crouched forward in front of a computer screen, it can put added stress on the discs that cushion our vertebrae, leading to lower back pain and fatigue. He says that it’s best to maintain the ergonomic "sway" to your low back using a lumbar support cushion while seated for long periods of time, and to try and keep your head in a neutral position over your shoulders and pelvis. Standing desks are a great way to break up prolonged sitting episodes throughout the day. While it’s impossible to maintain "perfect" posture at every moment of the day, being more mindful of how you sit will help turn good posture into a habit.
Shoulders/Upper Arms: Bassem Elhassan, MD, shoulder, elbow and hand surgeon and Co-Chief of Mass General's Shoulder Service, adds that it is very important to sit with your back well-supported with the neck in neutral alignment, rather than in a flexed (bent) position. This means that you should not be looking down at a computer monitor, tablet or mobile phone for prolonged periods, but rather you should find a setup that allows you to look straight ahead with the chin at a 90-degree angle to the chest. Both shoulders should rest in a normal, retracted position and not droop forward. Dr. Elhassan recommends simple exercises throughout the workday, such as rolling the shoulders back and shrugging and retracting the scapula, all while keeping the neck straight.
Hands/Wrists: According to Neal Chen, MD, Chief of Mass General's Hand & Arm Center, there isn't a specific problem that is caused by working from home; however, there are some general pointers that can help avoid making a preexisting condition worse. Using a laptop or tablet a lot, versus a desktop setup, may not allow for a good working position for your neck and back. If you are working with your elbows at an acute angle, this may contribute to arm pain. In addition, you should avoid leaning on your elbows for extended periods to prevent numbness or soreness. It is helpful to keep the wrist in a neutral position, or slightly extended, but not flexed. Your arm, elbow and hands should rest in a loose 90-degree angle with your hands on the computer keyboard.
Clearing a Space
The potential for household injuries and accidents becomes higher the more time you spend at home. It’s best to find a work spot free from distraction and clutter. Be mindful of toys and other items on the floor around your workspace, and try to keep power cords against walls and behind furniture so they don’t present a tripping hazard.
Working from home during the pandemic has been implemented in many workplaces as a safety precaution to prevent exposure to the coronavirus, and it’s worthwhile to be mindful of other risks to your health and safety by considering your workspace design and body posture to try and avoid any injuries or pain and truly stay safe at home.