The dust is only beginning to settle on the mass office exodus of early 2020. Foolishly, we thought we’d only be at home for a couple of weeks. We grabbed the essentials. Some of us were clever enough to save the plants. Almost nobody took their furniture.
The months are ticking away, and I think we can all agree that the sentiment towards home working has irreversibly changed. Home working is now a part of our lives, but there are still a few fundamentals we need to get our heads (and bodies) around.
As many of us are finding out, home furniture can be terrible for home working. Those kitsch bucket seats you bought for £20 each at the Swedish place work great at a lively dinner party…but not so well for a long day of deep working.
Some people are lucky enough to have a home office. But they are the minority. Most people have to pick between the kitchen chair, sofa, bed, or even the floor. As a workforce, we are more uncomfortable and less mobile than ever, and it’s having a devastating impact on our bodies.
Form follows function
All (decent) office furniture is intentionally designed to optimise your posture and maintain your comfort for as long as possible. The shape and functions pose you like a wooden mannequin, and you really don’t have to think about it that much.
Sadly, your current home furniture probably isn’t doing your body many favours.
It’s now more important than ever to understand good posture, and why it’s so critical for our general health. This guide will explain how to sit properly, and how you can arrange your equipment to give you the best chance of staying nimble.
Before we begin
It’s worth mentioning that it’s not great for the human body to maintain one single position for extended periods of time, regardless of how well-positioned you are. That’s why I’ve included some best practice recommendations for movement to include in your daily routine towards the end of this article.
I’d also like to point out that I am neither a doctor nor a physiotherapist. I do, however, have advanced training in conducting workspace DSE assessments, of which I have completed several hundred. This has given me a thorough understanding of best practices when it comes to working posture, and the ways to improve your work setup to help you achieve it. All factual statements made about human anatomy have been checked against medical journals or similar reliable sources.
If sitting at a typical office desk and chair causes you serious discomfort, I say the same thing now that I would in a DSE assessment. Speak to your doctor. Specialist equipment will certainly help you, but you need to diagnose your problems first.
So, without any further ado…here’s your guide to good posture when WFH:
Let’s start at the top
Your head weighs about 5 kilograms, roughly as much as an average bowling ball. Alongside the neck muscles, tendons, and ligaments, the job of supporting the head is down to the cervical vertebrae, a collection of seven bony rings that reside in the neck, starting at the base of the skull.
Having your head anything other than dead centre over your body can start to cause you problems.
Research published in Surgical Technology International shows us that as the head tilts forward, the forces seen by the neck surge from ~5 kilograms when straight, to a whopping ~27 kilograms when at 60 degrees.
If you tilt your head forward so you are looking straight at the edge of your desk, that’s about a 60 degree tilt. Which is pretty much the standard ‘phone on sofa’ pose.
Over time, this type of posture can contribute to you developing a rounded upper back, a big problem for our old friends the cervical vertebrae. This type of issue is increasingly common, with many physiotherapists affectionately dubbing it the ‘Nerd Neck’. (Honestly. Google it.)
Surgical Technology International defines good head positioning as “ears aligned with the shoulders and the “angel wings,” or the shoulder blades, retracted. In proper alignment, spinal stress is diminished. It is the most efficient position for the spine.”
In basic terms, you should try to keep your back straight, and your head centred directly over your shoulders.
If you spend a lot of time looking at your phone, it’s a good habit to hold it out directly in front of you to avoid hunching over. (Obviously this isn’t always possible…you don’t want to look like you’re taking pictures of people in the street.)
Likewise, if you spend a lot of time talking on the phone, you should use headphones. Cradling your phone in your neck while you type can quickly become problematic.
A good rule of thumb when it comes to setting up your equipment is that your head will typically follow your eye line.
You should position the equipment you most usually look at directly in front of you, with the top of your main screen(s) at eye level. If you only have a laptop to work from, use a laptop stand or a stack of books to raise it up, and get yourself an external keyboard and mouse. You can pick up a decent set for as little as £15.
RSI (repetitive strain injury) is a common problem that arises when people constantly repeat certain actions, like typing. Research by pain relief brand Mentholatum shows that 69% of all RSI injuries are in the wrist. So let’s start there.
Typing on a keyboard causes the tendons in your wrists to move back and forth. These tendons sit in parallel to each other, and the back-and-forth movement creates friction. This friction can lead to what is known as a ‘microtrauma’—a general term given to small injuries to the body.
Microtrauma forms the basis of a whole load of wrist problems, and if you type with your wrists bent, or with them resting on the desk, the frequency of microtrauma increases drastically.
The wrist shouldn’t be flexed in any direction, or resting on the desk as you type. Flexing or resting can cause major strain on your wrist, and can start to cause pain in a matter of hours. The best way to position your wrists is hovering horizontally.
You might remember (or even still use) those gel wrist-pads that sit below your keyboard or mouse. Generally, those are now considered to be more damaging to the wrist than having nothing at all. If you do get tired easily and can’t hold your arms in the air, those gel pads can be used as a ‘palm-pad’. Place the flat of your palm on the pad as you type, but be careful not to let them slide down.
Keeping your wrists flat should make your lower arms horizontal to the floor. If you find yourself typing t-rex style, you desperately need to lower your keyboard. This is a really common problem for people who use a laptop stand but have no external keyboard or mouse. This is a problem that needs solving.
To avoid fatigue, your upper arms should be pretty much straight down and by your sides, and your shoulders relaxed. If you’re having difficulty finding a good arm position, it is generally more important to have the lower arms and wrists correct, rather than the upper arms.
Put your back into it
The American Chiropractic Association reports that back pain is the third most common reason for someone to visit the doctor. Combine this with research by the UK Institute for Employment Studies, that indicates that up to 60% of employees in the UK are experiencing new neck, shoulder, and back pain since they have begun working from home as a result of lockdown, this seems to be quickly evolving into an epidemic of its own.
It’s important to repeat here that if you have major back issues, you should really talk to a specialist chiropractor or osteopath (start by contacting your GP). Poor posture and badly-designed furniture can lead to serious back issues, but they are by no means the only cause of these problems.
If you have an office chair at home, make sure it’s doing its job properly. Dig out the manual (or find it online) and adjust the chair so that you’re able to find a comfortable posture in line with the guidance above.
If you don’t have access to an office chair, try to select a chair that has a decent back. This means something that goes up at least as high as your shoulder blades, and doesn’t have lots of weird lumps and bumps.
Slide your bum as far back as it can go in your chair, and sit with your back straight. If the back of your chair is flat, there should be a gap between your lower back and the back of the chair.
This area of the lower back contains the lumbar spine, which consists of five vertebrae in the lower part of the spine, between the ribs and the pelvis.
Your standard office chair will have adjustable lumbar support built in, but the majority of standard home chairs do not. Without lumbar back support, it’s much more difficult to maintain the desired ‘sat up straight’ position. The lumbar spine and lower back muscles have to work much harder to support the proper curvature, and as they become tired the head and upper back tend to lean forward to compensate, and pull you into a slouch.
You can pick up a decent, detachable lumbar support for as little as £20, but you can also make your own alternative for free. Take a small towel and roll it into a tube. Slide that up and down your lower back until you find the sweet spot for you. Of course, this is no substitute for an ergonomic office chair, but it’s still a vast improvement for the lumbar spine in the meantime.
If you really want to push the boat out, you can get certain supports that slip over the chair completely and give you a fully-ergonomic experience.
Legs, knees and toes
Next, put your feet flat on the floor. Are your knees higher up than your hips? If they are, you need to try and raise your bum. If your chair can be raised, try to bring it high enough so that your hips are just a little higher than your knees. If you’re on a static chair, try using a pillow or get yourself a proper seat support (or ‘seat wedge’).
If you’re having trouble putting your feet flat on the floor at all, you may need to raise them up a bit. You can get a proper footstool for this, or you can just put a stack of books on the floor—both work equally as well. You should aim to have your ankles just a touch further forward than your knees.
Lots of people will try things like resting their feet on the wheelbase, wrapping their feet around the chair legs, or even sitting cross-legged on your chair. Positioning the legs in uneven ways can contort the body awkwardly, and long-term, this can lead to aches and pains. For what it’s worth: it’s perfectly fine to move around and stretch like this, just remember to come back to flat feet as often as you can.
If you have been able to do everything above, you should find your upper legs either horizontal to the floor, or sloping downwards ever so slightly towards your knees. Your weight should now be evenly distributed over your hips.
Keep it moving
In adopting all of the habits identified above, you pretty much have the ‘sat-down-and working’ posture nailed, and your body will thank you in the long run. But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not great for the human body to maintain one single position for an extended period of time. 100,000 years of human evolution have made us masters of movement, but certainly have not prepared us for the sedentary life of hunching over a MacBook Air.
The UK Government HSE guidelines recommend taking a break from your workstation for 5 to 10 minutes every hour. Have a stretch and don’t look at any screens. If necessary, incorporate movement around your work tasks, e.g. stand up and move around when taking calls (remember those headphones!), or go for a walk while you talk.
If you are able to vary your work position, that’s also great—try standing and working for a while. Just make sure to keep your screen at eye level and wrists flat and floating.
There is also a general rule for staving off eye strain when working at a computer all day, called the 20-20-20 rule. Basically, for every 20 minutes you spend using a screen, you should try to look away at something that is 20 feet away from you for a total of 20 seconds.
So, just to recap the essentials:
My personal thoughts on bad posture are that it is one of those awkward, ‘creeper’ things…like a beer belly. Each time you add to it, it really doesn’t make that much difference. But over time, it slowly builds up—and one morning you wake up and can’t reach your trainers.
If for any reason you’re still not convinced about the importance of good working posture…I highly recommend checking out the work done by Amy Cuddy, social psychologist and body language expert. She has produced a bunch of incredible research about posture and the physiological effect it has on your body and brain. You can start by watching her Power Pose TED TALK on YouTube.
Or if shock tactics work better for you…have you met Susan?