Ergonomic computer setup - An MSK Therapy perspective
This article is part of what the author is calling the Coronavirus (covid-19) Home Survival Pack and is just one of several articles relevant to "surviving" or coping with the changes a lockdown situation can create to daily-life. Although some people will be used to working from home either permanently or less frequently, the vast majority of people are not likely to be accustomed to some of the challenges that this can bring. Many companies are following government and health authority advice on minimising the risks of contracting and or spreading the Coronavirus (covid-19), including social-distancing. As a result, far more workers now have to work from home rather than the office. Such measures should help slow and control the spread of what is a highly infectious virus, provided people choose to follow the suggested guidance measures.
How to create an Ergonomic home working computer setup.
There are six steps to achieve an ergonomic home working computer setup, as shown in the illustration above, and the remainder of the article covers these. 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 diagram above illustrates a situation with a fixed table height and chair height as limiting factors, so the keyboard is positioned on the lap. By following the principles in this guide, one can achieve an adequate home computer setup and consider limiting factors.
Musculoskeletal challenges of working at home
However, working from home can create other musculoskeletal challenges if one does not take some relatively simple and practical steps to help avoid the impact of a changed and often not ideal home working environment. 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 (see the related articles section and neck pain), shoulders and back. Equally, if one places a laptop at the perfect height for the eyes, then this is great for the neck, back and shoulders, but not so good for the arms and wrists (see the related articles section on back pain). Such issues can be relatively easily fixed and without having to spend lots of money on specialist equipment. Many members of the general public can suffer from musculoskeletal-related chronic pain, particularly in the neck and back, (see the article on Chronic Pain for further details on aspects of such conditions and treatment). Ergonomics looks at ways to reduce loads on the musculoskeletal system through intelligent design of our work and home environment. It is possible to achieve a reasonably practical home working ergonomic laptop or computer set up with six basic pieces of equipment.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 adaption). 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.
If you liked this article or found it of interest, 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. Alternatively, it is possible to stay up-to-date by subscribing to the RSS feed or following TotalMSK on social media.
About the Author
As of December 31st 2020, the author chose to leave the Chiropractic profession. He no longer works as a Chiropractor and works as a Myotherapist in Morningside, Brisbane. The author possesses an unusual background for somebody who trained as a Chiropractor (McTimoney). His education, training, and practical experience span over two decades and relate to both health's physical and mental aspects. He has also needed to push his own 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. Terry also has extensive experience in security, work, health and safety and holds relevant certifications. He has also taught as a senior course coach at 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 consumers he sees and has treated over the last 15 years. He has extensive experience treating chronic pain and work and sports-related musculoskeletal injuries. Terry is still very active and enjoys distance running, kayaking, mountain biking and endurance-type activities.