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Executive opinion - December 2020

01 December 2020

As many of us are working from home either for the first time or more frequently than usual, Matt Birtles takes this opportunity to remind us of how to do so safely.

THIS YEAR we found ourselves working at home with little time to prepare. For many of us this meant making do with working on a kitchen table, and perhaps sharing this space with others. Apart from the disadvantage of making space to eat lunch every day, it shouldn’t mean that we compromise our posture greatly if we follow a few good tips for workstation set-up.

So for those of us who are working at the kitchen or dining room tables how do we achieve a comfortable (enough) posture? 

The first point is that a kitchen table is generally good enough for most tasks, despite it probably being slightly higher than your office desk. Use the space to position your laptop directly in front of you with no twisting or bending in your back. The table might be a bit high for computer work so raise yourself using a cushion or two on the chair. Dining /kitchen chairs commonly don’t provide back support for long term use so consider placing a stiff cushion or rolled up towel in your lower back region.

You’ll want enough cushioning under you so that your keyboard (which might be a bit high) is just below your elbow height and you don’t end up shrugging your shoulders which can lead to tension causing back and neck pain. Your forearms should be roughly horizontal and elbow angle should be between 90° - 110°. 

Spread your weight equally under the front and back of your thighs. Too much pressure on ’either end’ might give you pins and needles or lead to back aches. If your feet are unsupported, put something under them; maybe a solid stool or step. And leave a gap between the seat and the back of your knee to keep circulation going to the lower limbs.

Ideally use a separate keyboard and mouse and position your screen arm’s length away. This will let you elevate your laptop on a stand, books or a box so the top of screen is level with your eyes. If you use a standard laptop without the additional keyboard and mouse you’ll be looking down at your screen which can give you neck ache, so stretch frequently (slowly look at the ceiling) and take more frequent breaks. 

It’s important to take breaks from sitting more often than you normally do in the office to accommodate the compromises in comfort and posture; so stand up frequently and walk about so that you’re getting about 10 minutes away from the ‘desk’ every hour. Go for a walk in the garden or at home during every phone call and use your hands-free ear pods. 

Limit the time you spend working on your lap with a laptop, especially if sitting on the sofa, and use a cushion to raise the laptop if you do. There are foldable mobile tables that fit under the sofa which might help by giving you a decent adjustable platform to work on if you don’t have a dining table.

And do be mindful of the wider environment too. As much as we love our families, house mates, pets, etc. do take them into consideration and try to find a quiet place to work where you won’t disturb one another. Consider wider environmental factors such as glare from the sun, being too hot or cold, and control or allow for them where you can.

If you do experience back ache, consider ways to vary your position by standing for some of the time. Perhaps place a lightweight coffee table on the dining table to give you an ad hoc standing workstation or even use the kitchen worktop to stand for a while. It is as uncomfortable to stand all day as it is to sit, so mixing it up is important. 

And key to physical wellbeing is maintaining fitness, so do try to take regular brisk walks, bike rides or any activity that helps you maintain or build general fitness.

It is important to consider how to improve your home workstation. Using the HSE assessment form (designed for looking at office DSE) will help you do this. Talk with your line manager if you have any concerns and review your situation regularly making changes as appropriate. 

There is a link to the assessment form on our HSE guidance on DSE, which also has wider guidance on wellbeing related to working from home during COVID: https://www.hse.gov.uk/toolbox/workers/home.htm

And another quick guide to home working during COVID by the CIEHF is available here: https://www.ergonomics.org.uk/common/Uploaded%20files/Publications/CIEHF-Working-from-Home-Infographic.pdf

Most importantly, look after yourself, follow your local COVID guidance and stay safe. 

Matt Birtles is principal ergonomist in HSE’s Ergonomics and Human Factors Team. For more information, visit www.hse.gov.uk