WFH aches and pains getting you down?* One year in, it may be time to tweak your pandemic home-office set-up with these evidence-based tips from our experts.
Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour

Source: Ian McGillis for McGill FOCUS 

People, by and large, are creatures of habit.”

The subject was ergonomics, and Sara Saunders, PhD’14, was talking about one of the main difficulties in addressing it.

“Part of the challenge is to break out of our habitual ways of thinking, and to think long term,” said Saunders. An assistant professor at the McGill School of Physical and Occupational Therapy and the director of its Occupational Therapy (OT) Program, she is currently leading a team of OT graduate students in the Work Well project, aimed at gathering and applying information regarding the ergonomic needs of McGill faculty and staff. “In other words, you might not think you need to think about ergonomics now, but take that bit of discomfort you might be feeling at the moment, extrapolate it over many years, and you’ll begin to see the value of addressing it sooner than later.”

It’s an especially acute issue in a time of COVID restrictions, when circumstances have led many of us to spend more time than ever at our computers.

“There was a surge of interest at the start of the first lockdown,” said Saunders. “A lot of people were talking about setting up ergonomically sound home workstations. But that seems to have levelled off or even gone backward. We’re certainly still seeing people with uncomfortable home workstations that haven’t been adapted.”

The physical discomforts engendered by poor ergonomic practice typically begin in small increments, seldom feeling like an emergency. For those inclined to procrastinate, it might be tempting to put off indefinitely. One handy excuse is the idea that it might be expensive.

“There’s a popular misconception that it’s a big project with a significant financial outlay,” said Kathryn Leahy, a graduate student working on the Work Well project. “But often it’s just a matter of one or two little adjustments.”

Having said that, it is agreed that in some cases, you do get what you pay for.

“If you’re going to invest in a chair, invest in a chair,” said Saunders. “Sure, you could get something for $150, where the only thing adjustable is the height, but you may well get it home and find that it’s making no difference at all. So spend the extra couple of hundred dollars if you can and buy something adjustable. You’ll be glad you did.”

Speaking of chairs, if yours is on a hard floor, use some sort of traction mat to keep it from rolling too easily (a common issue in Montreal, with its older buildings where floors are often less than perfectly level.) Otherwise you’re expending valuable energy on stabilizing yourself.

Saunders and team are keen to emphasize something about the device that is more and more the go-to tool for home writing.

“Working on a laptop is the perfect recipe for pain,” said Saunders. “When using a laptop you are forced to decide between two evils: keeping it on your desk so you can type comfortably, but then you lean down to see the screen and end up with neck pain; or raising it up so you can see the screen but then you have to reach up to type and end up with shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain. Working more comfortably on a laptop is easy to fix: purchase an external keyboard and mouse and raise the laptop up—on a stand, box, books, etc.—until the screen is the same height as your eyes.”

Even there, though, there’s one more thing to remember. The adjustable-for-angle attachments found on the underside of some external keyboards can force wrists into awkward positions.

“They’re not generally a feature now, but you do see older ones still around,” said Saunders. “They’re bad. Don’t use them.”

The rule of thumb (no pun intended) is that while typing, your wrists should be at a neutral to negative angle, your elbows at 90 degrees or slightly more, your forearms parallel to the floor or as near as possible. As for the size of your desk surface, everything you need should ideally be in arm’s reach or close to it: you shouldn’t be in the habit of lunging for things. Your stomach shouldn’t be touching the edge of your desk—a position many find themselves in unconsciously, as it gives the illusion of stability—but your back should definitely be touching the back of your chair, ideally set at slightly more than ninety degrees and snug with the small of your back. If you find yourself leaning forward, lean back.

A directive widely known but frequently disregarded is the need for occasional movement, something easily forgotten when we’re absorbed in the task at hand. Stand up and stretch roughly every half an hour. If you need reminding, get an app that reminds you.

Another important consideration is variety of activities. We live in a time when technology conspires to keep us staring at screens every waking hour, causing many of us to have redefined what constitutes a break from work; it may be time to roll back that definition to the pre-digital age.

“Think in terms of actual physical activities you could be doing away from your desk during break time,” advises Leahy. “Something other than just looking at your phone screen instead of looking at your computer screen.”

It’s worth pointing out that ergonomics does not exist in a vacuum but at the nexus of many other things. What are the broader circumstances in which a person is working? Are there sources of stress that feel beyond the person’s control? Is the relative isolation that comes with working at home having an adverse effect, either physically or emotionally? All these factors can contribute to physical discomfort at the desk.

“A lot of people have had their pain increase since working at home, and that’s one reason why they’re seeking ergonomic assessments,” said Saunders.

As Leahy stressed, when it comes to pain caused by poor “ergo,” there’s no need to be a stoic.

“If you find that the pain or discomfort is still there when you’re away from your desk, and certainly if you find yourself waking up with pain during the night or experiencing it first thing in the morning, seek help.”

Saunders finds cause for optimism in the increasing number of people who think of ergonomics in holistic terms.

“One thing I have found is that a lot more people are talking a lot more freely about mental health issues—stress, anxiety, those types of things. It seems as normal as talking about physical issues used to be.”

So, then, it’s not so much a matter of how we address our ergonomic needs, as long as we address them?

“Yes. Your future self will thank your current self.”

For more ergonomic tips, as well as resources for McGill staff and students:
*WFH = Working from home

March 17 2021