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Female sitting at desk in front of laptop with arms raised behind neck

How to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders while working from home

With millions of Australians now working from home – and many possibly permanently after the peak of COVID-19 – there is a considerable risk of people experiencing discomfort and developing musculoskeletal disorders due to poorly set up home workspaces and a lack of movement.

While passing soreness, discomfort, and even brief pain from working at a computer is usually not a serious problem, it is a serious matter if the discomfort or pain is permanent.

Discomfort that has morphed into pain is a tell-tale sign of impending injury. It is important to address the underlying causes of such pain, however, before it gets to this point.

It is worth paying attention to that soreness or pain in different body parts, since it can often provide useful clues as to different issues with your workstation setup.

Signs you are not set up correctly

Some of the most common causes of pain and discomfort due to poor workstation set up and posture, are set out below, with suggestions for addressing them. You can also download a printable version of this guide to share with your team here.

SORE BODY PART

COMMON CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

WHAT CAN YOU TRY

Back of neck

 

Looking at a screen set too low or working directly off a laptop.

Looking down at documents or keyboard for sustained periods.

Raise your laptop and use an external keyboard and mouse.

Raise your screen. Set the top of your screen at around your seated eye height.

Use a document holder.

Improve your keyboard skills.

Side of neck & front of neck

Looking to one side either frequently or for a sustained period.

Locate documents and screen directly in front of you.

Dual screens – put them side-by-side, and bias the screen you use the most to be closest to “straight on”.

Top of shoulders, outside or front of shoulders

Keyboard/desk too high, arms unsupported.

Raise chair, find a thinner table to work at; reduce desk height (if adjustable); use a footrest, rest palms on front of desk, use wrist rest.

Lower back

Leaning forwards and not using backrest. Inadequate lumbar support.

Seat pan that is too short, providing insufficient leg support.

Prolonged sitting with minimal postural change.

Sit back in the chair and fix anything stopping you from doing that.

Adjust backrest height and angle to give firm support; remove arms from chair to enable you to get close to the desk; remove any obstructions under desk (e.g. drawers).

Stand up and move for a few minutes every 25 to 30 minutes.

Upper back/neck

Sustained twisted postures.

Sit straight on to your keyboard and screen.

Right arm or shoulder

Arm outstretched and unsupported for sustained periods while clicking on mouse too far to one side.

Move mouse closer to your midline; use single surface desk; reduce mouse actions (use scroll wheel, keyboard shortcuts, dictation software).

Use a skinnier keyboard with no numeric keypad.

Use a roller mouse.

Left arm, shoulder or neck

Frequent reaching for phone or cradling phone on shoulder.

Bring handset closer. Use a headset.

Leg discomfort, swollen feet, pins and needles

Underside of thighs compressed against chair seat.

Use footrest or reduce desk and chair height.

Headaches

Poor posture, visual problems, glare, noise, stress, high workload.

Set up workstation properly; deal with noise sources; noise cancelling headphones; screen filter; close blinds; close doors, take micropauses (look 20 metres away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes); eye test. 

Eye fatigue, temporary short sightedness

Visual problems, screen too close, poor image quality, glare, screen reflections.

As per “headaches”.

Stand up, move more!

Regularly vary your posture and move more to promote blood flow and reduce the build of muscular tension. Here are some simple movement tips:

  • Set a reminder in your phone or calendar to get up every 30-45 minutes.
  • Make it a habit to get up and leave the room after a Zoom meeting!
  • Walk and talk on the phone.
  • Have lunch in your backyard or on your balcony (weather permitting).

Best way to sit to make your body happy

  • Generally, your lower back should be well supported, your shoulders level and your feet supported too.
  • Use a footrest if there is excessive pressure under your thighs. Alternatively, lower your desk (if you can), as well as your chair.
  • Listen to your body. If you’re uncomfortable or sore, you’re on the pathway to an injury. Make some simple changes to your setup and routine to prevent this from happening. Refer to the guide above.
  • Remember – muscles need movement. No seated posture is ideal if maintained over prolonged periods. Make it a habit to get up from your seat for a short ergo-break every 25 to 30 minutes.

Household props you can use to improve posture/ergonomics

  • Insert a cushion to see how it helps your lower back when you are in your “working position”.
  • Relax in a lounge chair if there’s reading to be done. Changing positions during the working day gives important relief, too.
  • You can try using reams of paper or books as a temporary footrest or as a base to achieve the right screen height.

Guidelines for an ergonomic home office set up

Dohrmann Consulting have a range of free home office setup tips and resources available on our website, including:

Discuss your requirements with an expert – obligation free.

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