Whether you’ll keep working from home or return to the office, the pandemic has shown us the importance of a safe, comfortable workspace. For many of us forced to do our jobs where we lived, that meant creating a makeshift station out of whatever space or supplies were available. Dining tables became desks, couches turned into seats, and computers replaced in-person interactions. Ergonomic mistakes led to discomfort and a myriad of common injuries.
This past school year, I taught science to 133 8th graders over Zoom. I started out a healthy 29-year-old who ate well, exercised three times a week, meditated, and saw friends on the weekends. Though I had a history of depression, I found ways to manage it. After nine months of remote teaching, I had back and neck pain, chronic stomach aches, a high baseline of anxiety, and, worst of all, agony in my shoulder that woke me up at night.
Seeing orthopedic surgeon Louis Peter Re, he remarked that my left shoulder was visibly slumped. He asked about my home desk setup. I told him that my laptop was raised with books, so whenever I typed, I reached up to the keyboard with my elbows flared out to the sides. He gave me a lecture in ergonomics 101, diagnosed me with tendonitis, and offered a shot of cortisone in the same spot I was vaccinated two months prior. Before the school year, I’d researched how to look good over Zoom to be a more engaging teacher. The articles I’d read recommended I stack books beneath my laptop until the camera was level with my eyes to avoid the unattractive upward chin angle. Shaking his head, Re said he wished people were more concerned with staying healthy than looking good on camera.
Along with the physical therapy exercises he recommended, I adjusted my work setup and interviewed experts. As companies and individuals increasingly adopt the remote working model, there are important adjustments you can make that will alleviate and prevent various injuries.
The Laptop Issue
Laptops are great for their portability but not as good when used as a permanent solution. With small computers, the screen is significantly below eye level, which means you are more prone to hunching over. The keyboard is not set at the edge of the desk, where it ideally should be. According to Re, this causes a “closed posture, and you can end up with strain on the neck, back, and shoulders.”
In my case, the screen was eye level after I placed my laptop on books, but I was still hunched over when I was typing. My flared-out elbows put strain on the front of my shoulders and caused painful tendonitis.
One solution is an external keyboard. “To correct this,” Re says, “I usually recommend getting a separate full-sized keyboard that’s either wired or Bluetooth.” Having the external keyboard allows you to raise your laptop without having to reach up to type. You can raise your laptop by stacking books or buying a laptop stand. The top of your laptop (or monitor) should be slightly above eye level. This setup will help to keep you from hunching over.
Find the Right Chair
After using a folding chair for too long, I pulled a muscle in my back. Physical therapist Melanie Karol said her husband also hurt himself by using a folding chair, which led to tingling in his leg. In our interview, Karol made it clear that it’s not only about choosing the right chair but using it correctly.
An ergonomic desk chair has adjustable height. Both Karol and Dr. Re emphasize the importance of keeping your chair the proper height, where your forearms, wrists, and hands are level with your desk and keyboard. Otherwise, you’ll strain your shoulders, neck, and back. The ideal ergonomic chair has adjustable lumbar support.