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Creating an Ergonomic Home Office

Lori Sutton

Creating an Ergonomic Home Office
Aleksandra Zlatkovic via iStock

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The collision of our high-tech lifestyles with the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to a rise in remote working conditions. While there are arguably many benefits to working remotely or from home, this transition has forced many of us into makeshift office spaces that may be detrimental to our long-term physical health.

Many home office setups have been hastily designed, perhaps at the kitchen table or on the couch, which is not conducive to proper positioning, posture, or optimal for long-term use. Additionally, being removed from the office has had a secondary effect of limiting our in-person interactions with colleagues, contributing to less walking around an office and fewer built-in movement breaks. Because of this, many remote work positions may be even more sedentary than a traditional office job in recent years.

Home Office Strategies

There are two primary strategies to incorporate into your home office (or office-office, for that matter) to support your health and prevent aches and pain associated with prolonged sitting:

  • Establishing an ergonomic office setup that facilitates neutral positioning, good posture, and reduces strain on your arms, spine, and eyes.
  • Establishing healthy daily routines incorporating opportunities for movement.

The Office Chair

Given the number of hours most lawyers spend sitting each day, having a good, ergonomic chair is essential. The key quality to look for in a chair is one that will adequately support neutral positioning of your body—where the natural S-curve of your spine is supported by the back of your chair, and the joints of your shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles are all comfortable at 90 degrees.

Essential Office Chair Qualities

  • A high back chair is typically preferable over a chair with a lower back as it provides more support for the length of your spine while seated.
  • You should be able to sit all the way back in your seat, on your sit bones, with your shoulders stacked above your hips, grazing the back of the chair at or near the shoulder blades when sitting upright.
  • If your lower back doesn’t touch the back of the chair, use a small pillow for additional lumbar support.
  • A cushioned seat, whether built into the chair or added on top of the existing seat, will reduce pressure on your bottom and spine, allowing you to sit more comfortably for longer periods.
  • Armrests at a height comparable to the desk height will support a more neutral positioning of the forearms, elbows, and shoulders, reducing the pull on your shoulders from the weight of your arms and promoting better posture by reducing the tendency toward hunching or slouching.

Active Seating

Active seating is an innovative seating approach that allows the user flexibility in positioning and ways to incorporate movement into their seated work— think yoga ball chairs or ones that allow for cross-legged sitting. However, Elsa Lopez of WAHOO Ergonomics, an ergonomic specialist, warns that these types of chairs may not be optimal for everyone, as they often fail to facilitate ergonomic positioning, noting that for individuals with weak core muscles or poor spinal alignment, an active seating chair may cause more harm than good. Lopez recommends consulting an ergonomic specialist in your area to help determine the best active seating option for your body if active seating appeals to you.

The Desk Set Up

Another critical piece of furniture for an ergonomic office setup is the desk. Desk height may vary, so you want to make sure you choose a desk that fits your body and your office chair.

When you sit at your desk, your feet should be firmly planted on the ground at a height that positions your hips, knees, and ankles all at 90 degrees. If you are shorter or unable to comfortably plant your feet on the floor, place a large book or a small stool to elevate your feet to allow a more neutral leg position. Some footrests also allow for dynamic placement of the feet, which may be preferable for toe-tappers and leg-bouncers.  

Neutral Positioning

Your desk setup should also be arranged to support neutral positioning when you sit and work.

  • Elevate computer monitors and laptops to eye level or just below. This elevates your gaze, encouraging good sitting posture in your neck and spine, and reduces stress on your neck and shoulders.
  • Use an external keyboard, ideally an ergonomic external keyboard. This will facilitate more neutral positioning of the hands and wrists when working on a computer, reducing forced internal rotation from the shoulders diminishing strain over time.
  • Use headphones to facilitate good posture by eliminating the need for awkward contortions from balancing a phone while typing.
  • Good lighting is essential in your office space to reduce eyestrain and reduce secondary strain on the neck and shoulders caused by hunching forward when squinting or visually straining.

Standing Desks

Sit-to-stand desks are an option that may appeal to people looking for more flexibility in their workspace. These offer adjustable heights, allowing users to work either seated or standing, which can be great for people who get restless sitting all day or are looking for a way to incorporate more movement into their work routine.

Habits and Routines

When you spend most of your day sitting at a desk, it is essential to prioritize movement in your daily routines and find ways to increase your physical activity throughout the rest of your week.

Brief Movement Breaks

A solid rule of thumb is to make sure you take brief movement breaks every 20–30 minutes. It can be as simple as stretching your arms and spine for a moment, taking a few deep breaths while adjusting your posture, or standing up and shaking out your arms and legs quickly—anything to reset your skeleton and counteract the effects of prolonged sitting. Then, every hour or so, take three to five minutes to step away from your desk and walk around a little bit, even if it’s as simple as going to get a glass of water or taking a bathroom break. If you have difficulty incorporating movement routines, set a timer to keep yourself on track.

Predictable Routines

Establishing a predictable daily routine is essential to helping your body self-regulate and function most productively. Schedule meals and breaks and stick to it—the consistency will help your body establish a rhythm, preventing fatigue and brain fog. Take water breaks and keep a bottle of water on your desk to stay hydrated. If you can, take a brief walk on your lunch break to increase your overall daily movement.

Calming Elements to Reduce Stress

Finally, minimize stress as much as possible in your office space by incorporating calming multisensory elements.

  • Use a candle or essential oil scented with eucalyptus or lavender.
  • Add a houseplant or floral arrangement.
  • Play acoustic music or white noise softly.

The beginning of your career is an ideal time to begin establishing health-promoting spaces and routines to propel your success. Take the time now to craft a workspace thoughtfully and professional habits that support your health.