For ergonomists, human factors experts and health and safety practicioners, with careers dedicated to ergonomic assessments and improving office ergonomics, it’s alarming to read the daily LinkedIn feed with pictures of the ingenious home office setups being used around the world.
You have to admire the working from home communities “keep calm, carry on” attitude on display. There’s the starring role given to ironing boards as improvised, but not very ergonomically correct, sit stand desks. There’s the packs of panic-purchased toilet rolls, not prescribed in office ergonomics guidelines, elevating VDU screens to eye level. There’s even the upturned laundry basket used as a not very ergonomic workstation.
The way people have adapted their lives and home offices to working from home and the Covid-19 disruption is inspiring. But what does all this home-working mean for ergonomics in the workplace and staff well-being?
We really have the perfect storm for increased physical and mental risk factors. Everything runs against received office ergonomics guidelines. So how do we preserve the health and well-being of our employees when this sub optimal office ergonomics situation could go on for some time?
The “correct” answer, of course, is that we need a major investment to provide remote ergonomic assessment, to outfit every home-worker with a new ergonomic chair, a new ergonomic height adjustable workstation (ideally an electric sit stand desk), a take a break app to encourage stretching at work, a stand up app, a posture reminder app, 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 in their home office. An on-site EHS/workplace 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 of providing normal workplace ergonomics assessment is just too enormous to undertake in an environment as uncertain as peoples homes.
So, if our employees remain stuck with whatever makeshift home office ergonomics setup arrangements they’ve got, what can we do to safeguard their health and prevent the ergonomic risk factors from leading to an explosion in MSDs, RSI, repetitive strain and musculoskeletal injuries?
There is one solution available to everyone to improve home office human factors and ergonomics, and it costs nothing. What is it?
Yes, validated by human factors and ergonomics 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 workstation posture is and how many hours they’re working at their computer workstation, if your staff take regular stretch breaks, and use correct workplace stretches, 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 and stretching during the working day is absolutely key to maintaining optimal human factors and ergonomics 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, stretch and move, to do some brief activity like walking around the house, doing some office stretches, exercises or doing the washing it will make a huge difference to their health.
So what’s the right way to take these stretching at work breaks? It’s not so much about how long the stretch or stand up breaks are, or even what you do in the break, its mostly about how regularly you take the stretch breaks or stand up breaks.
A stretch break at lunch, or at the end of the day is good, but its not enough. Year’s of human factors and ergonomics research are quite clear on this, we should be taking short stretch breaks or stand up app breaks every hour. There should be at least 5 minutes, within each hour of the day, spent away from the computer workstation.
Being away from the desk during a “break” is key. A stretch 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 stretch break for your body. Breaks are about standing up, changing posture and moving around on your feet.
Yes, something as simple as a quick stand up app and stroll regularly around the house is enough to offset a lot of terrible human factors, ergonomics and stress. If we stimulate the body by providing regular time to stand up, stretch and recover during the day we can handle a lot of bad home office ergonomics whilst maintaining good health.
The once hourly, 5 minute stretch 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.