How to Work From Home Without Killing Your Back and Neck

Martha Lackritz-Peltier, an attorney at TechSoup, talks to one of her colleagues over the phone while working from her living room in Oakland on March 12, 2020. (Julie Jammot/AFP via Getty Images)

When Bay Area officials first issued shelter-in-place orders in mid-March, throngs of workers set up shop from home without any sense of how long they'd have to improvise.

Several months later, and many of those workers can now safely expect to work from home for some time to come. And that has many people wondering how to reduce strain on the body when working from places that weren’t designed for, well, working.

At the beginning, “we really saw people struggling with finding a place to work,” Vivienne Fleischer, co-founder and president of Performance Based Ergonomics, said on KQED’s Forum. “Now it’s, ‘How do I function? And is my setup right for me?’ ”

The good news, Fleischer says, is that small tweaks go a long way to make working from home more comfortable and ergonomically correct. The general principle is to maintain the body’s natural alignment while working, she explained. Here are some of her basic suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Your head should be balanced over your neck and spine, not jutted forward.
  • Your chair height should allow your knees to be level with your hips.
  • If your feet don’t touch the ground in the chair you’re using, don’t dangle your legs. Fill the gap with something.
  • If you stand, don’t lean on anything or put your weight onto one hip.
  • Elbows should be at a natural height, with forearms parallel to the ground.
  • As you type, imagine you are playing the piano, with palms off the table, to prevent cranking your wrists at an odd angle.

“First and foremost is how do we get our bodies in an upright and balanced position,” Fleischer said. “Most chairs and surfaces that people have already can be doctored up to support them well.”

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She suggests using boxes to raise screens up to eye level, pillows or blankets to support the lower back, and taking breaks.

“We’re definitely hearing a tremendous amount of struggle with eye fatigue, Zoom fatigue, video fatigue, whatever you want to call it,” Fleischer said.

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She recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Also, get up, move around, go for walks and stretch. Any movement that opens up the chest will help relieve the tendency to cave forward, Fleischer says. She also recommends small neck stretches, like turning the head so the ear moves towards the shoulder, to help release tension.

Fleischer isn’t completely against working on the sofa, but she recommends doing so for no more than 30 minutes at a time, not for long work stints. And, if you do find yourself working on the sofa, she suggests placing a pillow behind your back and under your knees to relieve the pressure that slumping into a soft bucket seat can put on your back. Lastly, use a lap desk, if you can.

“The idea is that you want to have some support within the inward curve of your spine so you don't have to do all the work,” Fleischer said.

She also says laptops aren’t great for ergonomics. When the screen is at the right height for the eyes, the keyboard is far too high. But when the keyboard and mouse are at the right height, it’s easy to strain the neck. To minimize these issues, Fleischer recommends using a separate keyboard and mouse.

In the long run, she says, it’s worth the time to scan the body and make sure it’s as aligned as it can be. If something is out of whack, try to creatively adjust the setup so your body is in as neutral a position as it can be.