Working from Home: How to Design a Healthy Workspace
January 7, 2021
Nancy Littke, PT
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting government mandates to work from home to stop the spread of the disease have resulted in many Canadians working from home. Roughly 40% of Canadians work in a job that can be carried out from home through telework technologies. Canadian employers and employees responded to the pandemic by quickly increasing the prevalence of working online. By the last week of March 2020, the Statistics Canada Perspectives Survey Series reported that 39.1% of Canadian workers were working from home in response to the pandemic.1
Working remotely can offer many benefits for employers and employees alike but should be adopted with some careful planning. Although many people had jobs that allowed them to work from home prior to the pandemic, it is a new work environment for many and it is important that workspaces be set up in a way that takes your physical health and safety into consideration to prevent injury or other unintended consequences. So, what can you do to make your workspace safe and productive?
Set up your workspace
Remaining healthy while working from home requires serious thought about the design of your office space. Many workers spend prolonged periods of time at their desks working on computers, placing them at risk of repetitive strain injuries and neck and back pain. Working at a countertop or kitchen table may be fine if you only do it now and then or had to make the move to working from home with little planning. However, if you intend on working from home for several weeks or are considering doing so permanently, you should ensure you have set aside an appropriate workstation. Here are some suggestions that can help prevent injury and discomfort.
When deciding on a location for your desk or workstation, consider the type of lighting available. Look for areas with natural light as this may help to reduce eyestrain. Exposure to natural light can also have a positive affect on your physical and mental well-being.3 Try to position your desk to prevent natural or artificial light from causing a glare on your screen.4
Consider the height of your table or workspace. Generally, your work surface should be around the height of you elbows when they are hanging straight down while you are sitting.4
Think about your posture. You want to keep your back in good alignment and your chin tucked. This position should feel comfortable and natural.
Have an adjustable chair if possible and set your chair height so that your feet rest flat on the floor and your thighs are horizontal, parallel with the floor.4 If not available, try putting a foot rest under your desk to keep your feet, knees and hips in a comfortable position.
Adjust your seat back so that there is a 2 to 3 finger wide gap from the back of your knees to the front edge of the seat and the back-support is in the small of your back.4 Folded towels or cushions may be used to provide adequate back-support if an adjustable chair is not available.2,4
Stability balls can be one way to “force yourself” into sitting with good posture and using your abdominal muscles. Just remember that when sitting on a stability ball you are using your core muscles all the time. You need to build up your sitting tolerance, adding a half hour to your time on the ball every few days and keeping an alternate chair available. When you become tired and start to slouch, it’s time to take a break from the ball.
Position your monitor or laptop screen 18-30 inches from your eyes so that the centre of the screen is at or slightly below eye level.2,4 Make sure you sit with your chin slightly tucked and your jaw parallel with the floor. If you are working off a laptop, having access to a separate monitor will allow you to position your screen at an optimal level.
Using a separate keyboard and mouse will allow you to position them so you can comfortably maintain your elbows at a 90-degree angle and keep your wrists straight while raising your laptop screen to the appropriate height, if you do not have access to a separate monitor.2,4
Keep your workstation tidy and free of clutter to allow you to move around freely. Keep frequently used items such as phones or often accessed documents or resources close at hand to prevent overreaching that can lead to increased aches and pains.
Even with your desk space set up properly, your body wasn’t meant to spend eight hours sitting in one position.4 Some evidence suggests that sedentary jobs “may be hazardous, contributing substantially to the growing chronic disease burden associated with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.”5 Sedentary time has also been shown to negatively effect several indicators associated with diabetes and heart disease among those at risk for diabetes.6
Even employees who are physically active can have high levels of work-related sedentary time which in turn can increase their health risks.5 In fact, “on average, over 75% of the office workday is spent sitting, with much of this accumulated in unbroken bouts of at least 30 minutes, demonstrating that the hazard is much more common than previously thought."5 When you are working from home your commute may literally be from the bedroom to the living room or den. This may increase the amount of time you are sitting beyond what you normally spend when working from your office building.
The good news is that small daily tasks can add up to increasing your physical activity at work and decreasing the strain and health risks related to prolonged sitting.
Get up to stretch, walk or change position every 30 minutes.
Think of ways to add activity at every opportunity such as walking around the house, taking phone calls standing up, or incorporating a standing desk at your workspace.
Make activity fun by starting challenges with other colleagues in their own homes. Try a stair challenge or use pedometers to measure steps and distance. Try uwalk.ca to organize the challenges and for information on how to borrow pedometers.
We all need to balance work and home life and look after our own health and well-being. When working from home, the line between work and personal may become blurred.3
It is important to maintain a regular schedule and take time to look after yourself. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, eating properly (the snack cupboard may be more easily accessible at home), and exercising regularly as these are important to ensure your own mental and physical health.2,3,4
Take advantage of being in your own home by going outside for a short walk or taking a stretch break at lunch, having your coffee break on your deck or in your kitchen for a change in scenery, or checking in with other family members who may also be at home during breaks.
Working from home may be a short-term measure during the pandemic or may become the norm for you and your colleagues. Whatever the future brings, it is important to ensure you are looking after yourself when at work and many of these measures are applicable wherever you find your desk.
If you find you are in pain after spending the day at your desk or if you are looking for help setting up your workspace, contact a physiotherapist. Physiotherapists can also treat other work-related injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Click here to find a physiotherapist in your area.