Making your Home Workstation Ergonomic

By Shona Anderson, Certified Ergonomist

When most people left their offices in mid-March to work from home, they didn’t expect the change to last this long. But now that many of us are still working from home, it is important to think about how we can make this experience as comfortable as possible. Many of us are working in makeshift workstations, using kitchen tables, beds, or desks that are not meant to be worked at for a full day. We are sitting in kitchen chairs with poor back support and using laptops as our main computer, rather than having access to the ergonomic chair, two screens, keyboard trays, and sit-stand desks that we may have in our office.

Ergonomics

Here are some tips on how to set up your chair, desk, and computer properly in a variety of different settings and some suggestions on how to modify these settings to improve your comfort.

The Perfect Workstation Set-up

If you are lucky enough to have everything you need, you should be able to set yourself up like the illustration below.

Your chair should allow you to sit deep into the backrest while keeping your feet grounded into the floor. You should have good lumbar and upper back support. Your screen should be separated from your keyboard and mouse, using one or two monitor screens at eye level, and your separate keyboard and mouse at elbow height. If you are also lucky, you have the ability to move around and work in a quiet and peaceful space.

Ideal Workstation Set-Up

Ergonomics

  1. Screen vertical, not tilted upwards
  2. Top of screen parallel to eye level (to maintain neutral neck posture – monitor may be lower if wearing bifocal or progressive lenses)
  3. Back and shoulder blades supported against backrest of chair, backrest locked
  4. Relax the shoulders and breathe
  5. Wrists straight, keyboard and mouse on same surface
  6. Elbows bent at 90 degrees, by side of body
  7. Lumbar support at correct height (in small of back)
  8. 90-110 degree angle in hips and knees
  9. Three-finger gap between the back of the knee and the front edge of the chair’s seat pan
  10. Feet flat on the floor (or a footrest)

However, most people don’t have an ideal workspace in their home that allows them to put in a full day’s work comfortably. An improperly set-up workspace may not cause issues for shorter durations, but spending hours working this way can wreak havoc with the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and upper and lower back. Here are some tips to help you set up your home office that will minimize injuries such as eye strain, neck, back, and wrist pain:

Desk and Chair Set-up

For starters, if you do not already have a home office then you need to pick an appropriate area of the house where there is a work surface that is ideally between 27”-29” (69-74 cm) in height from the floor. A standard height for desks/tables is around 29” (74 cm), but often that height is too high (as you may have found already, if your shoulders and neck are sore). Shrugged shoulder muscles limit blood flow, which often causes you to sit forward in your chair and contributes to fatigue and discomfort or pain in that area.

Sit in your chair at your desk. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle with your hands on the keyboard and mouse. If that’s not the case and the desk is too high, raise your chair or, if the chair is not adjustable, you can raise your body in the chair by sitting on pillows. Sitting higher will decrease the amount of shoulder shrugging you will do which can help relax your upper back muscles. If this causes your feet to come off the ground, you will need a supportive footrest to keep your feet grounded and your weight shifted back from your thighs onto your “sit” bones. A sturdy footrest that sits flat is most comfortable. Often a couple of packs of printer/photocopy paper under each foot can work quite well.

Making a Comfortable Chair

A supportive chair is extremely important in keeping your muscles relaxed. Supporting the curves of the back and having some support for your arms can help reduce muscle fatigue and strain. However, many people are probably using a kitchen chair or some other type of chair that does not have great support or adjustability. If the chair is too deep and the backs of your knees hit the front of the seat pan when you sit back into it, then a bigger pillow or separate backrest cushion will help support your back. It is important to have a small pillow in your lumbar curve (the “small of your back”) and have your shoulder blades come back and touch the supportive backrest in the chair. To make your own lumbar support, take a small hand towel and roll it up, then use duct tape or packing tape to keep it in its cylindrical shape.

Monitor / Laptop Positioning

Many people left their office with a laptop and are using it as their main computer. The CSA Z412-17 Office Ergonomics Application Standard for Workplace Ergonomics doesn’t recommend laptops for prolonged computer entry, unless they are docked or connected to external input devices. The fact that the laptop screen and keyboard/mouse are attached naturally contributes to users hunching their upper back and bending their neck down to use them. Over time, this will cause neck and upper back discomfort and/or pain. If you are in this situation, it is suggested that you get an external keyboard and mouse and raise your laptop up on books or stacks of paper (see picture to right) or whatever you may have around the house (like cereal boxes). The keyboard and mouse should be used at elbow height and the screen should be at eye level. If you have bifocal or progressive lenses and you need to look through the bottom of the lens to focus on the screen, then it should be placed lower so that you can view the top of the screen without bending your neck back.

Ergonomics

If you have a separate monitor, keyboard, and mouse, make sure it is set up as per the instructions above. If you have dual monitors, it is best to set up one as a primary (directly in front of you) and secondary to the side. But if you look at both equally, then set them up so you can view both comfortably without having to turn your head too far to the right or the left.

Changing Positions

Working from home poses interesting challenges for many people. You may find yourself trying to carve out a quiet spot in a house of multiple people working or schooling from home. Where you used to have the opportunity to stand up at your desk or walk around and speak with colleagues or go to meetings, you are now relegated to one spot, communicating with colleagues on Zoom or Teams and sitting for many hours in a day. It is important to take frequent breaks away from your workstation, especially if it is not set up as comfortably as possible.

Some suggestions for position changes include:

  • Taking your laptop to the kitchen counter and standing up to work for a while. Raising it on a book or box will get it to a better height for your eyes and if you can keep your keyboard and mouse at elbow level, this is an excellent standing option.
  • Taking your laptop to the sofa and lying down to work for a while. Recline on pillows and put one pillow beneath your knees to raise them. Have your laptop in your lap with your elbows beside your body and the screen tipped back so you can view it comfortably.
  • Sit on the sofa and put your laptop in your lap, raising it on a few books to get it to a bit better height.
  • Make sure you are getting outside. Fresh air can help clear the mind and walking will help wake up those muscles that have been sitting. A walk is a great way to get physical activity as well as a good mental reset.

Stretches

The less ideal your workstation is, the more important it is to get up and move around. Perhaps you can stand and walk around while on a telephone call. You could put your laptop on top of your kitchen counter and raise it and place a separate keyboard on some books. If paperwork is required, consider completing it by standing and laying the papers on top of a filing cabinet. This will allow you to stand for short periods of time.

Need additional stretches to get you through the workday?

Collectively, these workstation enhancement tips and stretches will allow you to benefit from a healthier, more ergonomic station while you await your return to your traditional workplace.

Shona Anderson is the owner and principal consultant of Anderson Ergonomics Consulting Inc. and a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) with a background in kinesiology. With over 18 years experience in the telecommunications, railway transportation, healthcare, and oil and gas industries, she has taught thousands of employees how to use their bodies more effectively so they feel more comfortable in their work environments. Shona’s knowledge and expertise in ergonomics combined with her interests in yoga, sports therapy, and athletics enables her to understand and solve problems associated with pain in the workplace.