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The 7 Key Principles of an Ergonomically Sound Workspace (and How to Apply Them)

The 7 Key Principles of an Ergonomically Sound Workspace (and How to Apply Them)

A woman working at her standing desk, while it's providing her with ergonomic balance.

These are the most important ergonomic considerations for your home office—or any office.

What started off as an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 has turned into a permanent lifestyle for many workers in corporate and tech sectors: Your office is now embedded in your home. But there’s no question that a home setting may not be the best working environment when it comes to the health of your joints, eyes, and even your brain function. A kitchen table that’s too high, or a chair with no back support, or too much time cloistered in a closet home office without a break—these factors can make working from home (WFH) a serious health hazard. But creating a space that’s optimized for proper ergonomic balance can make all the difference in a home workspace that promotes productivity, energy, and wellness.

Why Do Ergonomic Principles Matter? 

Ergonomics—the study of people’s physical efficiency in their working environment—brings together data, anatomy, engineering, and physiology to emphasize principles of workplace environments that enhance productivity and well-being. 

Picture this: You’re sitting with your legs up on your couch typing away on your laptop, and you suddenly start to feel pain in your back and neck. Now how can you focus on getting through your to-do list while in pain? You can’t be productive when you’re in pain! 

But some ergonomic malfunctions aren’t as obvious or instantaneous. Long periods of time spent in unhealthy postures can have insidious effects on your musculoskeletal and nervous systems that can take weeks or months to surface as painful conditions like tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, or spinal dysfunction.

According to The American Posture Institute, it can also lead to respiratory dysfunction and a lower metabolic rate. Physical ailments can also increase stress levels and depression. Therefore, an efficient and safe working space is essential to get your work done and prevent health issues, both physical and mental. So here are the best ergonomic practices for your workspace, whether it’s at home or not! 

1. Keep a Neutral Posture

If you hunch over or slouch while sitting, this could lead to chronic discomfort and worse. The healthy alternative? A neutral posture. This is a relaxed yet engaged position of the spine and the muscles supporting it (AKA core muscles), necessary to maintain for prolonged periods of working. A neutral spine is not ruler-straight but a natural, curved S shape. A neutral, seated position should have your feet resting flat on the floor with your knees level with—or slightly below—your hips. If your feet don’t reach the floor, use a step stool or box as a footrest.

Seats that lack adjustability can result in poor postures and almost guarantees some degree of static muscle loading, which can lead to body discomfort and musculoskeletal disorders. 

Tempting as it may be, you should avoid working in bed; on a couch; in a squishy, overstuffed armchair; or on a hard, uncushioned chair. And, if we’re really getting down to it, you shouldn’t be sitting at all…but we’ll get to that in a minute.

2. Seat Yourself Properly

Although using a real desk makes setting up a home office easier, if that isn’t an option, make sure your living room or kitchen table isn’t causing you posture problems.

Once you have set yourself up appropriately in your chair, put your hands on your lap—the height of your table should be the same level as where the elbows land. If your arms are straighter than a 90° angle of the elbow, your desk surface is too low; if you have to lift your arms to reach the table, you are too low. You should be able to place your arms comfortably over the table without lifting your shoulders. Also ensure your legs and feet are comfortable underneath the table with enough space to move freely—you don’t want to jam your knee against the underside of the table or stub your tow on the leg!

A great investment is an adjustable height desk that enables you to switch easily between sitting and standing. These desks ensure you’re not straining your body by staying in one position for too long and encourage you to follow a key ergonomic principle: movement throughout the day (more on that below).

3. Stabilize Your Wrists and Hands

No matter what kind of desk you have at home, your keyboard and mouse should be at elbow level when seated and kept at a close and comfortable distance to you to avoid shoulder strain. Your elbows should hang naturally by your sides without discomfort as you type. A wrist rest may be helpful to keep your hands and wrists comfy.

To promote better wrist placement, use a keyboard that’s either flat (helping you hold your wrists straight and flat) or has a negative tilt (meaning the front row of keys is higher than the back). Many keyboards tilt up, so that the back row of keys is raised. This forces you to bend your wrists up and back, which can lead to strain on both the wrists and hands. 

If possible, avoid resting the wrists and forearms on non padded edges of the desk – this could lead to contact stress which can cause discomfort. 

Your mouse should be close to the keyboard and easy to reach without overextending any part of the body. A mouse pad will support your hand and wrist and prevent strain. 

4. Align Your Monitor With Your Eyes

The top of the monitor should be at or slightly below your eye level to keep the cervical spine in a neutral position—you should be able to see your entire screen comfortably without having to tilt your head up or down. The monitor should also be positioned at least an arm’s length away. 

These settings may be more difficult to achieve with laptops as the keyboard and screen are attached. So if you have a laptop, try to apply the following: 

  • The monitor distance should be about 20 inches when using a tablet or laptop screen (and further away as the screen size gets larger). 
  • If you use a laptop, raise it up to eye level with a laptop stand, rather than placing it directly on your desk (which isn’t a very flattering videoconference angle anyway…if you care about that sort of thing). You can also create a laptop lift using books, boxes, or anything else with a flat, stable surface.
  • Since a laptop stand will also raise the keyboard potentially out of your comfortable reach, you should use an external keyboard and mouse to allow independent positioning of your arms and wrists.

5. Rest Your Eyes Regularly

Eye strain is easy to disregard when we seemingly have no choice but to bear down on screens with our eyes for hours on end. But staring at the computer (or the computer and the phone and the TV) for long hours can cause strain and fatigue on the eyes that make it difficult to stay focused and engaged with your work. Eye strain can also ripple into postural issues and chronic headaches as we tend to hunch and squint as our eyes get fatigued.

The 20-20-20 rule can prove effective to prevent eye strain by providing microbreaks for your peepers. Here’s how it works: look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds after every 20 minutes of screen time. Easy! 

Regular screen breaks are essential when working from home as the social and ophthalmological relief of breakroom culture, coffee breaks, and the proverbial water cooler has been lost in this setting. 

6. Illuminate Your Space Properly

Lighting plays a key role in workspace comfort. If the room or monitor screen is too bright, it can lead to eye strain or headaches. If it’s too dull, you may end up squinting and straining your eyes as you try to compensate. Here are some simple rules of thumb for healthy workplace lighting. 

  • DO NOT work in a dark space with a single, targeted light source! This kind of imbalance illumination forces the eye muscles to constantly contract and expand to acclimate to each area, resulting in strain and headaches. Instead, use a combination of direct light (such as a task lamp) and indirect light (track lighting or natural light) to illuminate your workspace evenly. 
  • Position your workstation at a 90° angle from large windows to reduce direct glare from the sun. If you can’t escape window glare, you can outfit your monitor with an inexpensive anti-glare screen to reduce some of it.
  • Avoid positioning your monitor directly below an overhead light fixture.
  • Equip conventional fluorescent light fixtures with diffusers to soften the light
  • Cover exposed lightbulbs with shades that soften and direct the light away from your eyes.

7. Take Regular Movement Breaks

Speaking of which, we take for granted how much we move—and break from focused work—in a workplace setting. Just getting to and from the office are significant chapters of our moving day that have been lost to the WFH world, not to mention walking down the hall to make copies or down the street for lunch. Those movement breaks were naturally built into our day—and have been struck from a digitally connected, remote workweek. 

This makes it crucial to add intention to your daily movement when working from home. An ideal solution is to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day. Alternating positions is key to relieving musculoskeletal discomfort, as the human body is not designed to stay still. An adjustable sit-stand desk is the perfect tool to achieve this.

But standing alone isn’t a cure-all, as we still tend to slump, lean, and shift our weight unevenly to take pressure off our back and feet while upright. Try these active posture correctors devised by Dr. Tom Oddo to add stretching, mobility, and soothing realignment to your movement breaks.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the small ways we expend energy that don’t fall into the categories of sports, sleeping or eating. Like walking to the meeting room or tapping your fingers. NIOSH research has found that hourly 5-minute breaks can significantly reduce overall levels of musculoskeletal discomfort and eyestrain. According to the CDC, this could be essential to maintaining body weight and energy levels. 

So go ahead and set a break timer throughout the day (here are some potential break schedules to consider), and stretch, hydrate, walk the dog, meditate, or whatever helps you feel refreshed, relaxed, and ready to refocus!

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