Home / An ironing board is not a sit-stand desk

For ergonomists and health and safety experts, with careers dedicated to improving office ergonomics, it’s alarming to read the daily LinkedIn feed with pictures of the ingenious home offices being used around the world.

You have to admire the “keep calm, carry on” attitude on display. There’s the starring role given to ironing boards as improvised sit stand desks. There’s the packs of panic-purchased toilet rolls elevating screens to eye level. There’s the upturned laundry basket as a desk.

The way people have adapted their working lives to the Covid-19 disruption is inspiring. But what does all this home-working mean for staff well-being?

  • Locked down at home – means less physical activity
  • Netflix and zoom – mean increased sedentary behavior
  • Home schooling and worries about job security – mean increased stress
  • Laptop use with improvised home offices – mean poor ergonomics and posture

We really have the perfect storm for increased physical and mental risk factors. So how do we preserve the health and well-being of our employees when this situation could go on for some time?

The “correct” answer, of course, is that we need a major investment to outfit every home-worker with a new chair, a new height adjustable workstation (ideally electric), a laptop docking station with a monitor (or two), an external mouse and keyboard, and perhaps some noise cancelling headphones.

Then we need someone to deliver and assemble all that new equipment and help the employee set it up correctly. An on-site EHS/ergonomics assessment would be optimal to ensure we’re meeting our legal health and safety obligations.

While that all sounds wonderful, is it likely to happen soon? No. The task is just too enormous to undertake in an environment as uncertain as this.

So, if our employees remain stuck with whatever makeshift arrangements they’ve got, what can we do to safeguard their health and prevent the risk factors from leading to an explosion in musculoskeletal injuries?

There is one solution available to everyone and it costs nothing. What is it?


Take Regular Breaks!

Yes, validated by scientific research for over half a century, the old advice about taking regular breaks is as relevant today as ever. No matter how poor their posture and how many hours they’re working, if your staff take regular breaks they’re likely to maintain good health.

The big problem with office work is that it leads people into essentially stopping their body moving for long periods. The human body, conversely, is made to move continuously. Ensuring we get enough movement during the day is absolutely key to maintaining optimal health.

The good news is, we can do both. We can work and move. If we can get staff to interrupt their work periodically throughout the day to stand up and move, to do some brief activity like walking around the house, doing some exercises or doing the washing it will make a huge difference to their health.

So what’s the right way to take these breaks? It’s not so much about how long the breaks are, or even what you do in the break, its mostly about how regularly you take them.

A break at lunch, or at the end of the day is good, but its not enough. Year’s of research are quite clear on this, we should be taking short breaks every hour. There should be at least 5 minutes, in each hour of the day, spent away from the computer.

Being away from the desk during a “break” is key. A break where you take a zoom call with a friend at your desk, or do some online shopping, or watch the news online is not a break for your body. Breaks are about standing up, changing posture and moving around on your feet.

Yes, something as simple as a quick stroll regularly around the house is enough to offset a lot of terrible ergonomics and stress. If we stimulate the body by providing regular time to recover during the day we can handle a lot of bad ergonomics whilst maintaining good health.

The once hourly, 5 minute breaks are the ‘big breaks’ in any good routine. But they still leave your body spending the other 55 mins each hour hunched over your laptop. This is why it is also recommended office workers also try to add what are called ‘Micro-breaks’ every 5 or 10 minutes in between. These are where the worker simply stops typing, drops their arms to their sides and relaxes for 5 – 10 seconds.

So in summary, if you want an effective and low cost way to keep your staff more healthy, no matter where and how they’re working, the best thing you can do is ensure they take frequent breaks.

The ideal scenario, backed up by extensive research (see white paper) is outlined in the table below.

Of course, remembering to take breaks regularly like this requires some discipline. However, there are stretch-break software tools, such as that from Wellnomics, that can help. These remind users to take their breaks at the right times and give them feedback on how healthily they are working.

Eventually, if home working becomes a far more common occurrence, then that budget for a proper home office fit-out and assessment will come along, and we can set everything up correctly for our staff. But, until then, the introduction of regular movement is without doubt the most important way organizations can help their staff stay happy and healthy through the challenges of working from home.