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Creating an Ergonomic computer setup

Ergonomic computer setup - how to

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant more people now work from home or hybrid work. Working from home often creates unique challenges, which can negatively impact musculoskeletal health and other aspects of daily life. Making an excellent ergonomic computer work setup is relatively easy, inexpensive and possible with everyday household items. There are six steps to achieving an ergonomic home working computer setup, and the illustrations provide two possible end solutions after following the steps. The remainder of the article covers these steps and the rationale for them. Unlike in the office environment, there can be more limiting factors when working at home, as it may not be possible to adjust the chair or table height. The diagrams below illustrate two typical scenarios. It is easy to achieve an adequate home computer setup and consider limiting factors by following the principles in this guide. Besides people working from home, many students would benefit from taking a few moments to create a good ergonomic working environment and should have plenty of books to hand.

Two examples of Ergonomic computer setups

An example Ergonomic home workstation setup

The first example demonstrates a possible setup with a fixed, high desk height and normal chair as a limiting factors.

An example Ergonomic home workstation setup

The second example demonstrates a possible setup with a fixed normal desk height and normal chair as a limiting factors.

Musculoskeletal challenges of working at home

Musculoskeletal challenges of incorrect homeworking computer setup

Working with a computer typically involves spending extended periods holding set positions. For the body to achieve or maintain any fixed position requires muscles to contract for a prolonged time isometrically. Muscles can only sustain contractions for a finite time and then fatigue. How long it takes for muscles to fatigue depends on many factors, including the muscle condition, size, type, loads involved etc. An ideal working posture can help reduce loads on our muscles and other structures, which is an ergonomic setup's aim. Ergonomics looks at ways to reduce loads on the musculoskeletal system through intelligent design of our work and home environment. Muscles will still fatigue at some point, which results in changes to posture (postural fatigue) and a transfer of loads to other areas.

Although laptops can be great as a portable and easy way to do work, they are inevitably not suitable from a postural fatigue point of view. Naturally, if one places the laptop on a desk at the correct and comfortable height for the arms and wrists, it is not ideal for the neck and shoulders. People often develop shoulder and neck pain with a poor working setup. Also, as postural fatigue sets in, there is a tendency to slump, even with lumbar back chair support. The body adapts to changes created through a forward head and shoulder carriage, which changes loads on the back, often resulting in back pain . Equally, if one places a laptop at the perfect height for the eyes, this is great for the neck, back and shoulders but not so suitable for the arms and wrists. Hence, an ineffective work setup can lead to issues such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Tennis Elbow (lateral Epicondylitis) and many other problems. Many of these conditions are easily avoidable, though often, people put off seeking any professional help or effective treatment. Changing a working setup once symptoms have appeared is not likely to resolve the situation due to soft tissue adaptations and the fact that many such conditions are easily irritated. Hence, it is common to see people suffering from Persistent Pain in a musculoskeletal therapy clinic. Hence, it is best to seek professional help sooner rather than later and help avoid additional problems. The article on finding an ethical musculoskeletal professional is an excellent start. It covers some things to look for in a good professional and things to avoid. Alternatively, the TotalMSK Brisbane Clinic occasionally has offers, which are accessibly by the booking link.

The six things you need for an ergonomic home working setup

  • Comfortable chair
  • Table, desk or another working platform.
  • A laptop or a computer with a monitor.
  • An external keyboard, (wired or non-wired).
  • An external mouse or similar (wired or non-wired).
  • A pile of books or similar.

Step 1: Identify possible areas to work from (preferably a spare room)

image of skeleton thinking about homework computer setup

If room allows, then it is best to identify an area to work from that is not the room one uses to sleep. Sleeping and working in the same space means that mentally there is no separation between work and normal life. Such a situation can make it hard to "switch-off" at night and get well-needed rest, relaxation and recuperation time. In times of uncertainty and high levels of stress, it is essential not only to keep physically active, eat correctly but also allow the body to carry out vital maintenance functions. The articles about stress and performance cover this in far more detail and also offer coping and resilience strategies (see the related articles section). Equally, it is a good idea to get dressed as if going to work too, which again allows one to physically and mentally separate work from home. Furthermore, it might look a touch unprofessional attending meetings in pyjamas or similar.

Step 2: Internal and external light sources, avoiding screen glare or reflection.

Light sources and homeworking

Ideally, one wants to find a position to work from at home that will not result in lots of glare or reflection on the laptop screen or monitor from either outside or inside light sources. It would be possible to place a thin bed sheet or similar between any such light source and the computer screen, which would effectively work as a filter. In, the case of internal light sources and from a fire-safety perspective, one would need to ensure that the sheet is a reasonable distance from the light source and does not get hot. Most internal lights sources have some shade/filter or are dimmable.

Step 3: Identify ones "natural posture" while sitting.

Identifying a natural posture for homeworking setup

It is also essential to identify what your "natural posture" is, and this will be different for each of us. Identifying, ones natural posture is vital as this is the foundation for other aspects of one's setup. You can either make your body conform to your work setup or make the work setup conform to your body. Your body will thank you for making the work setup fit it and not the other way around. One of the easiest ways to establish your "normal posture" is to sit in the chair you intend to work from, but not in front of your planned work area. A good height chair will enable ones feet to rest flat on the floor, while the knees remain at a roughly level height with the hips. It is then just a case of normally sitting, not rigid and remembering that comfortable position. If one were to sit in front of a desk while trying to find said "normal posture" then one is likely to subconsciously adapt one's position to the desk environment and thus affect the foundation work. Soldiers go through a similar process when learning to shoot, as postural fatigue can be highly relevant to accuracy.

Step 4: Establish correct screen working height.

home working correct compiuter screen height

Next, while remembering the "natural posture" place the laptop on the chosen work surface and raise it using books or similar until the top third of the screen is roughly at eye level. Another method is to open a web browser and adjust the screen height until your eyes are level with the search bar at the top. Ideally, books used should be either of the hardback variety or big enough and stable enough to support the laptop safely. You also want to position your laptop screen at roughly arm's length too from your final "natural" sitting position. If one is using an external monitor, then the same height and distance advice applies. Sometimes, laptops can get quite hot when being used for long periods. Although there are various products on the market designed to keep laptops cool, airflow is essential. Laptops usually have small feet underneath which enable air to circulate, and these feet must provide clearance between the laptop and whatever surface one places it on, books included.

Step 5: Keyboard and mouse setup.

home working keyboard and mouse setup

Ideally, the keyboard and mouse should roughly be shoulder-width apart, which limits the amount of repetitive internal and external shoulder rotation. The wrists and forearms should also be straight (not the elbows), which reduces loads across the wrist joints and angling or sloping the keyboard can help with this. Depending on the desk or working area height, one may have to get slightly creative. If the working area is too high or low, then one might need to place a cushion with a tray on it or similar to achieve the ideal working position. If one is using an external monitor and the laptop purely for the keyboard and mouse, then the laptop height needs to be set up as per this process (step 5). That said, an external keyboard and mouse is still a far better option.

Step 6: Take breaks and stay hydrated.

Staying hydrated and taking breaks when homeworking

It is also worth remembering that however good your work setup is, your body can only hold any given position for so long before muscles start to fatigue and other structures start taking up the load (see the related articles section and tissue adaptation). All of us will experience postural fatigue at some point, though this may vary considerably between individuals due to multiple factors including age, fitness, previous injury history, self-help etc. It is equally essential to maintain hydration levels and to take breaks and move. Typically, if one's urine is a darker colour than "straw" colour, then one is starting to get dehydrated. That said if one was drinking lots of tea, coffee, alcohol or other types of diuretic, then urine is likely to be reasonably clear while drinking such fluids, but you will be getting dehydrated. Ensuring that one is well hydrated, has the added natural benefit of making people move and take a break too. Even a few minutes break every 45-60 minutes, and a bit of movement gives muscles, tissues and other structures a well-needed break.

The article was written by Terry Davis MChiro, BSc (Hons), Adv. Dip. Rem. Massag., Cert. WHS.

The Morningside clinic occasionally runs promotional treatment rates for new and existing patients, which are available via the online booking calendar. If you liked this article or found it interesting, feel free to share the content with others. There are lots more articles available via the TotalMSK main Health, Wellness and Sports Injury blog page, which has a brief description of all the articles to date.

About the Author

As of December 31st 2020, the author chose to leave the Chiropractic profession due to a planned move back to Australia, where his training and education are not recognised. Terry no longer works as a Chiropractor and works as a Myotherapist in Morningside, Brisbane. He developed an early interest in soft tissue therapy techniques and advanced myofascial release methods in 2006 for treating various conditions. Terry's interests in human performance and trauma have naturally led to him developing a specialism in treating work and sports-related musculoskeletal injuries and Chronic Pain symptoms.

The author possesses an unusual background for somebody who trained in the McTimoney Chiropractic technique. His education, training, and practical experience span over two decades and relate to health's physical and mental aspects. He also needed to push his body and mind to the limits of physical and psychological endurance as part of his time serving in Britain's elite military forces. His education includes a bachelor of science degree in Business Management, with a specialisation in psychology and mental health in the workplace, an Integrated Masters in Chiropractic, MChiro and a multitude of soft-tissue therapy qualifications (see the about section for more details). His soft tissue qualifications range from certificate level right through to a BTEC Level 5 Advanced Diploma in Clinical Sports and Remedial Massage Therapy. He has also taught as a senior course coach at the Advanced Diploma level (Myotherapy / Musculoskeletal Therapy) in Australia, both theoretical and practical aspects, including advanced Myofascial Release Techniques and has certification in training and assessment. Terry will have taught many of the first students to train as Myotherapists in Brisbane. Terry's combination of knowledge through education, training, elite military service, and personal injury history has paid dividends for the patients he sees and has treated over the last 16 years. Terry is still extremely active and enjoys distance running, kayaking, mountain biking and endurance-type activities.