The Home Office is Dead. Viva la Disruption!

The fact that most people have worked from their cars, their closets, or even their toilets during the past couple of years is just one indicator that the old way of work has hit the wall.

Once upon a time, people went to an office every day. They came home to work a little more in their formal home office, which had a big desk, a fancy chair, and a wall of official-looking leather-bound books. Record scratch. Today you’ll find workers sprawled on their beds, crunched into a corner of their closets, hunched over their kitchen tables, and yes, even sitting on their toilets.

The Home Office is Dead

In a recent survey of 2,000 Americans who have worked at home during the pandemic, 41% said they have worked from their car, 34% from their bathroom, and 33% in their closet. The result? Plenty of pain. A majority (82%) of respondents to the survey by OnePoll on behalf of Advil said they had experienced aches and pains while working at home, including complaints about: 

  • Back pain (48%)
  • Neck pain (42%)
  • Shoulder pain (39%)
  • Eyestrain (38%)
  • Headaches (38%)
  • Wrist pain (32%)

The culprit for all this hurt: a dysfunctional work setup. While some people working at home have invested in ergonomic chairs, standing desks, and blue light glasses, others haven’t found the time or the money to spend on improving what they initially thought was a short-term situation.

“The problem is that most people got sent home from work with a laptop and left the rest of their office equipment behind,” says Kermit Davis, an expert in office ergonomics and professor in the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Environmental and Public Health Sciences in the College of Medicine. “Laptops are designed for travel or occasional work, not an 8-to-10-hour day using a laptop on a kitchen counter or table causes you to flex your neck forward, which strains your back, too,” says Davis.

“Putting your laptop on your lap is one of the worst things you can do because you can develop severe neck issues,” Davis says.

In addition, the lack of a good office chair without armrests means your arms don’t have support. That, too, can cause back and wrist pain.“A lot of people started using folding chairs, which don’t offer any lumbar support at all,” says Davis.

office_chair

Experts say choosing a chair that’s the right size, with comfortable armrests and adjustable height, is the foundational piece of gear in a home work setup. The one shown is from Lee Industries.

Ease Home Office Pain Without Financial Strain

Replacing your laptop with a desktop computer, buying an adjustable standing desk and the perfect ergonomic chair can set you back thousands of dollars, although that might be cheaper than your chiropractor bills or a future back surgery. But Davis says you don’t have to buy everything top-of-the-line to get some results that will ease the strain on your back, neck, and eyes.

“You don’t have to buy a $500 chair,” says Davis. “You can buy the $200 chair and it will be almost as comfortable although it may not last as long. If you can find one with adjustable armrests, that’s going to help a lot.”

Most important, says Davis, is to get a chair that fits your size. A large chair may not offer the right support for someone who is petite, he says.

Davis recommends spending money on an external keyboard and mouse to give yourself the flexibility of raising the laptop screen. “Ideally, you want the top of your laptop screen or monitor to be at eye level,” says Davis. “You don’t want to be looking down all the time because that causes back, neck, and eyestrain.”

In a study Davis conducted early in the pandemic with University of Cincinnati employees who were working at home, he found that about half of the people in the survey set up their external monitors too low. Nearly one-third set up their primary screens off to one side rather than centered in front of them, which resulted in twisting the neck or back to view it. Many people used chairs that were too low. In addition, 73% of those in the survey used chairs without any lumbar support, which is especially hard on the lower back.  

“A standing desk can be a good alternative to use sometimes but using a standing desk all the time isn’t any better than using a sitting desk all the time,” Davis says. “A standing desk doesn’t offer any back support.”

While adjustable desks that switch from standing to seating desks can be beneficial, Davis warns that the monitor must be set up correctly in each position for optimal results.

The next best thing to a new office setup: pillows and towels

If you can’t afford to buy a new desk, your company doesn’t have the funds to kick in to fix your backache, or you just don’t have room to carve out the ideal workspace in your home, Davis recommends alternating where you work. “Sit at your workstation for a little while and then switch to standing at your kitchen counter,” he says. “Even though neither one is ideal, it’s better than sticking with one uncomfortable solution for multiple hours at a time.”

Davis has some ideas for makeshift standing workstations besides the kitchen counter, which of course has the added hazard of typing next to the cookie jar, or overlooking a sink full of neglected breakfast dishes.

“Try setting up your laptop on an ironing board, on top of a piano or on a sturdy clothes basket placed upside down on top of a table or a desk,” Davis suggests. “Even a box, a stack of books or a pillow could work to elevate your laptop to the right height when you want to use it at a desk.”

Davis also recommends using a pillow or a rolled-up towel on a regular chair for lumbar support. A pillow can also be used to raise the level of the seat.

“If you have a chair with arms but they aren’t the right height and aren’t adjustable. you can wrap towels around the arms to raise the level,” he says. “It even helps to just move your chair closer to your desk or table to encourage your back to rest against the seat and for your arms to rest on the desk.”

A pool noodle cut in half, soft insulation or a towel can be wrapped around the hard edge of a desk or table to provide a soft front where you can rest your arms, Davis suggests.

“The most important thing is to get away from your laptop every 30 minutes,” Davis says. “You don’t need to do a full exercise routine, but you need to get your blood flowing with a quick stretch or walk. Even just standing up for two minutes every half hour can help.”

Use Words instead of Actions

One option to allow you to walk away from your laptop and move around like an old-fashioned boss in the movies dictating to his secretary is voice command software.

“I didn’t specifically research various software options, but logically it makes sense that it would work like a job rotation,” says Davis. “You can get up, move around, give your wrists and arms a rest, and especially stop using a mouse for a little while. That would provide a good physical break from your desk.”

A variety of speech-to-text options are available. Dragon Professional offers the best overall software, according to Lifewire, but the built-in software with Windows 11 and macOS systems works well, too.

While you’re thinking outside the box and inside your home, you may want to work on that collection of pillows and towels to add some comfort to your zone.

The aches and pains of working from home courtesy of Advil

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