The dining table. The kitchen island. The sofa.
What were once household furniture items have now become last-minute offices for many Canadians thrown into government-mandated work-from-home structures. While these impromptu office setups may have sufficed for a short period, we’re now into yet another week of working from home at these ergonomically questionable surfaces. So if you haven’t started to feel a dull ache in your shoulders and lower back, you probably will soon enough. “A lot of people were sent home without any time to prepare,” says Marnie Downey, a Canadian certified professional ergonomist and founder of the ergonomics consulting company Ergo. “After the first week, they may feel fine. But a couple of weeks in, the risk of a sore neck, sore back or sore wrists definitely increases.”
The dining room or kitchen table is usually the first spot we go to set up shop. But the issue here is that surfaces meant for dining aren’t designed for computer work. “The height of the table is too high,” Ms. Downey says. This causes workers to hunch up shoulders and raise their arms in the air in order to reach their keyboards. This can result in tension and pain in the neck and shoulders.
If you can’t change the elevation of your work surface, the solution that Ms. Downey suggests is to elevate yourself in your chair so that you can type with your shoulders at a 90-degree angle. “Try to get to the right height by sitting on a pillow, a folded-up towel or something else that elevates you so that your shoulders are more relaxed,” she recommends. Ms. Downey also suggests using a lumbar pillow to help retain the curvature of the back. A rolled-up towel works in a pinch.
For most of us, elevating ourselves to an appropriate height for typing leaves our feet dangling off the ground. “You want to try to keep your feet on some sort of flat surface,” Ms. Downey says. The goal is, again, to have the knees bent at 90 degrees. “A book, a box or a Tupperware bin could work here.”
Switching between different working postures can help prevent strain from a poor work setup. “If you have an island in your kitchen or another higher work surface, switch between the kitchen table and the island,” Ms. Downey explains.
Perching at the kitchen island may also require some hacks to perfect. “If they’re a taller individual, use books, a box, something to elevate their laptop up to elbow height,” says Ms. Downey. “You can use a butcher block, a baking sheet or you can turn a laundry bin upside down.”
Ms. Downey suggests alternating positions every 30 to 60 minutes. The more awkward your working posture is, the more frequently you should be changing positions.
While the sofa or couch ranks low on Ms. Downey’s list of ideal places to set up shop, there is a better way to work on the sofa. “Sit lengthwise on the couch and put your feet outstretched on it,” Ms. Dowey says. The armrests of most couches can provide decent back support. “I wouldn’t suggest making this your permanent workstation, but if you’re just checking e-mails or reading something for 10 or 15 minutes, it’s not as bad.”
With the return to work likely months away or more, Ms. Downey suggests investing in better equipment to work more comfortably. A solid office chair with an adjustable height would be first on her list. Second and third would be an external mouse and keyboard. This allows users to raise their laptop screen up to eye height on a stack of books, preventing neck strain from looking down. You might consider asking your employer if they will courier these items home to you from your office.
But Ms. Downey’s favourite household hack is the ironing-board desk. “You put your laptop on the ironing board, and you have the flexibility to adjust it to elbow height,” she says. Most ironing boards can also be adjusted high enough to use as a standing desk then be lowered at an appropriate height for seated work. “If you have an ironing board, it’s probably the most versatile work desk you can use.”
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