Ergonomic Risks at Home

makeshift workspace - couch and table holding papers, laptop, mobile phone and coffee

Ergonomics is a topic we most often think of within an office setting. But what about in relation to the place we call home? Ergonomic chairs, ergonomic keyboards, ergonomic mice — even ergonomists themselves all seem most relevant between the walls of a cubicle.

But the role good ergonomics has to play doesn’t end when the sun goes down and the office doors lock. In fact, ergonomics is just as important in the home setting, because what you do during your off hours can create or worsen the ergonomic issues you encounter when you head back to work. If poor ergonomics in the office can seriously threaten your ability to work comfortably, productively, and with maximum efficiency, poor ergonomics at home will only further throw you off your game.

To both prevent and mitigate this damage, let’s take a look at common ergonomic issues in the home, and effective interventions you can implement as your own, self-styled, home ergonomist. This is a two-part series, so expect a helpful follow-up next week.

The Culprit: Your Couch

Here is the essential dilemma of the modern work-life: If you’re like most people, you spend the bulk of your workday sitting; then you get up, sit in you car as you drive home, walk inside, and plop down onto the couch for the next four to five hours, until it’s time to lay down in bed.

Sound familiar? Well, if sitting at work is dangerous — doing so can cause health conditions that range from diabetes to heart disease — it’s just as dangerous at home. And yet while more and more of us are getting hip to this idea in the workplace, going so far as to replace our regular desks with standing ones, we don’t seem to have any qualms about sitting at home. Who cares if it adds hours onto our daily sit times, and if sitting at home usually involves far more slouching than we’d ever do at the office — and on unsupportive furniture, too? Hey, we’ve got to relax at some point!

person using laptop on futuristic couch

‘\/’ by Thomas Leuthard, https://flickr.com/photos/thomasleuthard/10891456256/. License at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

The Fix:

Just as we recommend getting up to move at regular intervals at the office, we recommend doing so at home. Sure, get some good TV time in, but when those commercials come on, take that as an opportunity to do a few stretches. Or simply walk around the room to get the blood flowing as you hit fast forward on your DVR.This will help reduce the risk of injury.

And when you do plop down onto the couch, make sure that it’s a supportive one. Just like when you sit in your office chair, you’ll want your couch to be the right height, so that when you sit, your knees can rest at a forty-five degree angle, without over or under-extending. You’ll also want your cushions to be neither too firm nor too soft, so that you don’t sink into a hunch. Adding extra pillows for lumbar support can help in this as well. And if you’re more of a lounger, make sure that your couch is long enough so that you can sprawl out on it, again without under-extending your legs, and that you have a firm pillow to support your head into TV watching position. Just as at work, you know you’re in the right position when your back is straight and your neck remains neutral.

The Culprit: Mobile and At-Home Devices

Sure, you might leave your desktop at the office. But what about your laptop, your tablet, and your phone? And what about that Playstation waiting for you beneath your TV? Whether you spend hours at home texting, emailing, or playing video games, the ergonomics of mobile or at-home devices matter just as much in the home setting as they do in the office. In fact, they often matter even more so, as you most likely relax without an ergonomist around to correct you, resorting instead to old habits and to less than ideal usage habits. If you thought carpal tunnel syndrome was a risk due to hours of repetitive motion typing, you better bet it’s even more so when you carry that typing and clicking into the evening hours. Gorilla arm, anyone?

The Fix:

To reduce risk, Just as we recommended for couch sitting, one big solution here is simply to take more breaks. Go ahead and send that email, but then, you know, get up and do something else for a bit — something that doesn’t require typing. Set break reminders if you have to, just like you do at work.

And when you do use your mobile or at-home devices, pair them with the ergonomic accessories that will guide you into more ergonomic approaches. A travel ergonomic keyboard, when paired with a laptop and tablet stand and a travel mouse, for example, is an easy way to create an ergonomic workstation at home — one that can move around the house with you, or come along for the ride on the road. The same goes for computer gaming; add an ergonomic or vertical mouse, and those clicks will no longer put you at risk — at least not for anything other than the evil machinations of a digital warlord.

well balanced workspace - keyboard, mouse, mobile phone and tablet on tablet stand

The Culprit: Your Bed

Yes, yes, we know how much you love your bed. Who wouldn’t love the place where that precious thing called sleep happens? But if there’s one place where ergonomic issues are likely to arise, it’s in this very setting. We spend a quarter of our lives here, and often with pillows and mattresses that push our spines out of alignment, or that place our necks in anything but a neutral position.

Is your back sore from a long, stressful day at work in a poorly designed chair, or from the disaster that is your bed setup? Who can tell?

The Fix:

Try out a variety of mattresses before you decide on the perfect one for you. Keep in mind that a good mattress, just like a good couch, will be comfortable but not too soft, as it needs to be firm enough to provide ample support. Foam mattresses can be an excellent route, but they tend to be expensive, so consider a foam egg crate to put on top of a firm mattress to soften things up.

Additionally and importantly, look for a pillow that provides just the right amount of support so that your neck is placed in a neutral position, even when switching from sleeping your back to sleeping your side. This means that you don’t want a thick pillow that makes your neck strain upwards, but you also don’t want a pillow that is too thin or too soft to provide any support at all. A pillow specifically designed with ergonomics in mind can also be an effective solution. This may all sound obvious, but it is a key shift in mentality, as we tend to think all about the way our heads feel on a pillow, when really it’s our necks that cause all of the pain.

And please, please stop sleeping on your stomach. As Yoda would say, “Nothing good of this will come.”

In Short

Ergonomics in the home matters just as much as it does in the office. In fact, given the lack of attention paid to this issue, it’s all the more pressing. Keep an eye out for our Part 2 in this important series next week!

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