In mid-March, millions of American workers were suddenly told to work from home. At first, many of us welcomed what we thought was a temporary change — no commute and working in pajamas? That’s the dream.
We hunkered down in our homes and made the best of the situation, telecommuting while lounging on our couches or using a coffee table as a makeshift desk.
But five months later, the situation has proved it is far from temporary, and it’s time we make some serious adjustments to our work-from-home setups to ensure we don’t develop chronic injuries over time.
Nancy Wilson, physical therapist and owner of WorkSafe Physical Therapy in Wichita, says it’s important to consider a person’s unique needs when creating a functional workspace.
"The core of ergonomics is fitting the workstation to the individual instead of trying to do it the other way around," Wilson said. "Someone who’s five-foot-two has different requirements for their desk than someone who’s six-foot-two."
WorkSafe deals specifically with work-related injuries. Founded in July 2000, the clinic provides services including ergonomic assessments, where an individual’s workstation and how they work within it are analyzed. Based on the analysis, Wilson and other physical therapists suggest adjustments to avoid injury.
Working in an awkward position for a long period of time can result in long-term issues known as cumulative trauma injuries.
"All that small stress and strain has then led to a bigger injury because they’ve just worked in an awkward position for so long that muscles have shortened and joints are getting tight," Wilson said. She expects common post-COVID ailments to be chronic headaches, neck and low back pain, tennis elbow, and sore wrists.
Without the comfort of adjustable office furniture, most of us are dealing with what we’ve got at home: hunching over our dining table desks or sitting on barstools at the kitchen counter.
That, says Jonathan Puleio, is a major issue. He's the global vice president of Humanscale Consulting, a company that focuses on creating adaptable office products.
"The body has limits and when you place the body in a posture that is less than ideal, over time the body will start to break down," Puleio said. "The risk that we’re seeing at homes is above and beyond what we’d see in a traditional office."
He says having a functional work space isn’t just good for your body, it’s good for businesses, too: Hidden costs of ergonomic issues can skyrocket companies' insurance premiums and result in poor productivity, as injured workers are more likely to take breaks or do a mediocre job because they are working in an uncomfortable position.
"Companies are paying for ergonomics, though they may not realize it," Puleio said. According to a study examining the effectiveness of ergonomics intervention, companies can reduce their injury rates anywhere from 60-80% with good ergonomics.
Additionally, if workstations were designed to fit one’s neutral postures, many of these issues would disappear.
According to the experts, the three biggest things to pay attention to when designing a home workspace are: aligning the computer monitor with the midline of your body; correcting hand and wrist position so your arms are in a natural placement and elbows are at your sides; and ensuring that your feet are firmly planted on the ground.
Wilson, the physical therapist, says another big help is remaining active.
“The main thing is just to remember to move. Take little micro breaks," she said, like stretching or taking a brief walk at least once every 45 minutes.
In order to adjust our workstations accordingly, we might have to get creative — stacking books to heighten our monitor to being at eye level, using a folded towel as a palm rest that can support our wrists, or purchasing blue-light glasses to protect our eyes from the harsh glare of a digital screen.
But these changes could be well worth the investment — in both body and business.
Hafsa Quraishi is KMUW's inaugural Korva Coleman Diversity Intern. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York.