Are you working at home full-time these days? If so, you could be in danger of aches and pains or worse. You may be accustomed to responding to emails at the kitchen table or spending the occasional weekend writing a report on your home computer. And you may feel fine for the first couple of weeks or longer. But working in a home office, day after day for weeks or months is a very different thing from doing it for a short while. Unless you have the right setup, sooner or later you will wind up with back pain. In a separate post, I address the questions of how to protect your shoulders, wrists, and eyesight.
Now is the time is now to review your work-at-home setup and make sure it's ergonomically sound for your spinal health. The trouble and expense (if any) is well worth it. It will pay for itself by saving you on chiropractor treatments in the months and years to come.
I've been a solopreneur working at home for decades, and I've lived through more lower back pain than I care to remember from my at-home setup. Eventually, I evolved a home office that preserves my back health, despite spending an absurd number of hours in front of my computer. You can too. Here's how.
1. If you use a laptop, get an external keyboard or monitor.
While laptops and notebooks are extremely convenient, they're dreadful to use on an ongoing basis. That's because the laptop screen and keyboard are attached to each other, which means that if the keyboard is in a comfortable place for typing, you have to bend your neck and look down. So if you're using a laptop, plan on adding either an external keyboard, so you can put the laptop at comfortable monitor height, or an external monitor, so you can put the laptop at a comfortable height for typing.
2. Sit with your elbows and knees at a 90-degree angle.
You may have seen the infamous ergonomic diagram that shows how you should sit while working, with your spine straight and your knees and elbows bent at 90-degree angles. (Here' a version from the Mayo Clinic.) I've seen that guideline criticized, and yet for me it's the best position to aim for while working. Notice that the guy in the diagram has a footrest so that he can keep his hips level with his knees. I have one too for the same reason (mine can also heat up since I often get cold while working).
You may or may not need a footrest, but you definitely need a chair/desk combination that allows you to fit this 90-degree configuration more or less. There are very expensive chairs -- my husband has an Aeron that he loves and costs around $500. I have a chair that I bought at an office supply store for about $150. They both work great. It's a matter of experimenting and finding what gives you the right support.
3. Look straight ahead (not down or sideways) at your monitor.
Your monitor should be at a height that you can look at with your neck straight, not bent. For most people, that means you need to elevate the monitor. I have an adjustable height monitor stand. A stack of phone books or cookbooks or bricks could achieve the same effect.
For pity's sake, don't have one of those arrangements where the monitor is off to one side so that you have to turn your head to look at it. That may have made some sense years ago when people only rarely used their computers but it's a terrible idea now. Every time I see a setup like that, my neck hurts just thinking about it.
4. Switch it up.
Remember the standing desk craze? I gave that a try, being concerned about ergonomics and the health dangers of sitting. What I learned boils down to this: The most important thing is not to sit for long uninterrupted periods.
So make sure to get up and move around every half hour or so. Set a 30-minute timer (or just work in Pomodoros, like I do). It can also help to spend the occasional half hour working while standing, which you can do using a bookcase or by placing your laptop on top of a box on your desk. (Experts say you should actually spend your "standing" time walking or dancing in place, and I say anytime you can dance while working that makes the workday more fun.) Or switch to sitting on a ball or ball chair for a half hour or so at a time.
Only you can decide what setup works best for your body. Whatever that is, it's important to pay attention to how your work setup affects your health and to make changes whenever you need to. That's how you'll stay healthy in the long run.