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University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)

Ergonomics 101: Working from Home During Coronavirus

As remote work and distance learning become a way of life, UNLV occupational therapist Donna Costa offers hacks for a healthy home office and exercise routine.

Marshmallow-soft couch cushions and a cutesy vintage chair here. Dim lighting and blackout curtains there. Ah, there’s nothing like the comforts of home.

Except during a pandemic.

Across the nation, new work-from-home and distance learning routines amid the COVID-19 outbreak have many people -- and their strained necks, backs, and eyes -- wishing they could trade those home comforts for the comforts of the office.

“Many people are struggling to make their home environments work as offices, but don't know how to do that effectively,” said Donna Costa, the director of the UNLV School of Integrated Health Sciences' new occupational therapy program and an expert on ergonomics and environmental adaptation. “Our homes are our sanctuaries, designed for our comfort. But there are things we can do to keep in line with ergonomic principles.”

Here, Costa offers tips to turn your home’s work space into an area that works for your health.

What are the common mistakes people make when configuring their home office that might lead to health issues? 

The two main issues are the device you're using (PC, laptop, iPad) and your chair. They call it a laptop because that's what it was originally designed for - an alternative to the desktop PC that was portable. But having the laptop on your lap is the worst ergonomic position.  You want to replicate the posture in the photo seen at this link. Your eyes should be level with the top of your computer screen so you are not looking down, causing neck strain. You can just put the laptop on a few books to raise the height. Your hips, knees, and ankles should be flexed at 90 degree angles, and your elbows also bent. Your chair should have adequate lumbar support. If you are having back pain, neck pain, wrist pain, your position is not correct and needs to be adjusted.

What are some general tips to prevent  things like eye, back, or wrist strain? How do you know if you're doing it right?

Find a working surface and chair in your home that puts you in the posture shown in the diagram referenced above. But OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) has revised its guidelines to account for different ergonomic postures. There are four alternate workstation postures - upright sitting, standing, reclining, and declining. Look at the lower portion of this page for details.  You know you're not doing it right when you have pain. If you do, adjust to a different combination of work surface and chair. The kitchen table may be great for eating, but not the right height for work tasks. The other consideration is lighting which should be adequate to support your focusing on tasks without eye strain.

Are there gadgets or simple exercises you can recommend to prevent or relieve pain caused by poor ergonomics? Can you offer any hacks to make do with items already lying around the house? 

You don't have to go out and buy equipment. If your feet don't touch the floor when you're sitting in your chosen chair, get a book or two to serve as a footrest. Sitting on a firm chair that has you in the correct posture is the best. Your sofa may be more comfortable but you won't last long sitting on that comfy couch and your productivity will suffer. In terms of lighting, natural light is the best, so try to have your new workstation in front of a window. You can supplement as needed with additional lighting. Here in Nevada we have plenty of sunshine so take advantage of that!

Some of us may take for granted that we're not doing the normal walking and other exercises that are part of daily work life. What's the best way to replicate that at home?  

Try as much as possible to replicate your previous work routine. If you used to take a walk at lunchtime, continue to do that. If you went to the gym daily, try to find a virtual class you can join to simulate that. One of the most important ergonomic principles is to take periodic stretch breaks. Our bodies are not meant to be static, they're meant to move. Make it a point to get up and stretch once every hour during your work day.

Working from home means we jump from work computers to phones to TV and back again. How is the increased screen time impacting health?

This new normal has us feeling like we're working 24/7. The best strategy is to try to maintain your previous workday schedule as much as possible. Most of us didn't have access to TV during the day while at work, so don't do it now. It's tempting, and if you have kids at home, the TV is probably on for them. But it is a huge distraction. So again, find a space within your home where your posture and focused attention is supported. We know from research studies the impact that screen time has on children's developing brains which is why most parents try to limit screen time. As adults we also need to limit screen time for our physical and emotional health. If your previous work schedule was 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with a one hour lunch break, try to replicate that at home. Remember to take breaks from the computer screen once an hour, even if just for a few minutes.

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