The ergonomics of working from home

Many Australian workers have recently and suddenly found themselves working from home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Flexible working arrangements have been available since the introduction of The Fair Work Act 2009, for employees who have worked for an employer for longer that 12 months on a full-time or part-time basis. These flexible working arrangements can help both employees and employers by increasing staff retention, decreasing absenteeism and achieving greater productivity through increased employee job satisfaction. (Ref - www.fairwork.gov.au)
 
There seems to be two main sub-categories of people working from home developing - those with children (particularly primary school or younger) and those who don't have children.  The first category is struggling to find the balance between caring for their children at home and getting work done. The second category are regularly mentioning they are finding themselves more productive without some of the usual office distractions, however are finding themselves more socially isolated. I have two young children myself, and in the past I have found it very difficult to get any work done when the children are around...even when both parents are home!
 
Working as an Osteopath, I have continued to see patients face-to-face in our clinic. We have been conducting Telehealth appointments, however, for these I have still been coming into our clinic.
 
Earlier this week I spoke with, Carlee Ackland, an Ergonomics Consultant and Exercise Physiologist, at GHD in Perth, W.A. who has been working at home for the past four weeks. Carlee has found that her work/life balance has improved overall, is really productive with her work, has less stress, is regularly walking her dog and is spending much less time commuting to her office. Carlee has found the biggest challenge to be psychosocial, in that she is a 'people person' and misses the personal interaction that she loves with her colleagues and clients.
 
Conversely to Carlee, if you happen to be more introverted by nature you may be relishing the opportunity to be stuck at home and keeping to yourself.
 
Either way, if you are lucky enough to be working from home, I have compiled a list of a few essential tips to help you improve your level of comfort, increase productivity, reduce pain and tension, and hopefully improve your understanding of office ergonomics.
 
Workspace
If you are working from home, hopefully your employer has provided you with some information about how to set this up. If not,  Click here for the guidelines recommended by WorkSafe Victoria.  There is also a working from home checklist from the Federal Government that is worth while completing.  Click here to see this checklist.
 
Carlee's recommendation is to try to build a permanent workspace, or have an area of your home you will work from. Carlee is lucky to have access to good office equipment, as her employer allowed her to take home her ergonomic and IT equipment home with her. The experience for her “has reinforced the importance of good office equipment” and a set up that finds a balance between comfort, efficiency and productivity”.
 
Change it up
Most likely, your home office isn't perfect. But that is fine. Always start with the recommended ergonomic guidelines, however, do some trial and error on what FEELS best for you. The guidelines are just that, however, they don't guarantee that you won't get discomfort. They also don’t suggest you sit in the recommended seated position for too long either. Just like in healthcare, where one form of treatment works for one person and isn't as effective on the next person. The perfect office set up for one person, could be very different to the next person.
 
So how long should I sit for?
A general conscious of the perfect positioning for the body when working in an office environment over an hour period is to sit for 40 minutes of that, stand for 15 minutes, and walk or move for 5 minutes.
A phrase that I love and regularly use with my clients and is well known in allied health circles is " your best position is your next position", while in ergonomics it is "your next posture is you best posture". Meaning that the best thing to do for your body is to change position regularly.  Carlee has found a good way to apply this at home is to make your posture task related. For example, Carlee recommends “mixing it up! For document writing, be comfortably seated at your desk; when checking emails, try standing with your laptop on the kitchen bench; or walk while on telephone calls around the house/block”.
 
Get moving
Have you ever heard the phrase "motion is lotion"? This means quite simply that moving your body is the best lotion or therapy for lengthening shortened or tense muscles, and to mobilise and lubricate stiff or restricted joints. A lot of people experience discomfort or pain from having stiff or restricted joints of the spine and body, or tense and shortened muscles.
 
Exercise
If you find yourself more efficient and you are getting an hour’s worth of work completed in 50 minutes, take that 10 minutes to complete some stretches and prescribed exercises, or go for a quick walk. This will help refresh your energy levels, and allow you to come back focused and ready to take on the next task. I'm sure your boss won't mind if you’re more productive after having a break! Some generic exercises that I recommend are reverse shoulder rolls, shoulder blade squeezes and a chest or pectoral muscle stretch.
 
Chair
All chairs are not created equal. So, a comfortable, adjustable chair (for height and angle) is recommended. You should feel comfortable when sitting, just don't get too comfortable and sit for too long. I read a quote some years ago that I liked from Leon Straker, a Distinguished Professor at Curtin University in Ergonomics, that "the perfect office chair is a church pew" - why? Because it is so uncomfortable that you cannot sit in it for too long! This quote should be taken in context, because if you are too uncomfortable you will avoid being at your workstation, hence leading to decreased productivity.
 
Carlee’s top recommendation is to get your office chair set up first, and if you need help – seek it out. It is important to find the balance between comfort, efficiency and productivity”
 
Be mindful or set reminders
We not only need a break from prolonged, static postures but also the repetitive mouse movements and typing tasks we perform!  If you have the ability to ‘check-in’ on yourself and listen to your body when it needs a break - that is fantastic. However, most people will benefit from having a reminder pop-up set up on your computer; an alarm on your phone or even a post-it note reminding you to MOVE.
 
Move more
Are you getting it now? Movement will help alleviate any discomfort in your neck, shoulders, or low back better than anything else. Movement also promotes circulation, mental alertness and it is exercise!
 
How is your mental health?
Your mental state is also known to affect how you feel physically. Most people are under some sort of stress or have heightened anxiety at present, this is normal. You are more likely to experience increased physical symptoms if you are stressed. Please talk to your supervisor if you are feeling isolated working from home, or seek professional help www.lifeline.org.au or www.beyondblue.org.au
 
A few other ergonomic tips include;
  • Discover your high productivity periods
  • Don’t work in your PJ’s
  • Develop a morning routine
  • Limit your social media use
  • Avoid glare and eye strain
If you require more assistance or are getting some pain and discomfort, please seek a professional opinion. Contact your local Osteopath, Physiotherapist, Exercise Physiologist or Chiropractor who can provide you with hands on treatment for pain relief, give specific ergonomic advice and prescribe exercises to prevent the pain and discomfort coming back.  There are also Ergonomics Consultants like Carlee, who can assist with setting up your home office (via video link); and provide simple solutions to avoid discomfort; and maximize your productivity and efficiency specific to you and job role.
 
- Marshall Anderson, Osteopath and BodyFocus clinic director
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