The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, March 26, 2020

WFH laptop ergonomics

So, you suddenly find yourself working from home. You've got a laptop and wi-fi, easy peasy then, huh?

As someone who's suffered with RSI-related chronic pain for 20 years, the thought of folks swapping their workplace desks for a laptop on the sofa rather fills me with dread. Working from home may be helping protect you from coronavirus, but it's really important you don't let other aspects of your health suffer in the process.

You might be used to using a laptop at home to browse social media or do a bit of online shopping, but that's a very different kettle of fish from spending a whole day focused on fiddly work documents. That's why those of us who work from home full-time invest in getting a good workspace set up. Here's mine with a large monitor (slightly raised), keyboard, mouse (and graphics tablet) along with a decent office chair.

From an ergonomic perspective, the key thing is to have a set-up that allows you to sit and work in a comfortable, relaxed position where you're not hunched over to see your screen and your arms and shoulders aren't getting twisted or fixed into awkward postures. It's awkward, tense postures held over a period of time that can lead to aches and pains, and if you're unlucky, persistent and longer-lasting problems.

But you're working on a laptop, right? So what can you do to optimise your set-up? Well, my number one bit of advice is to get yourself a separate mouse and keyboard. They don't have to be fancy schmancy – you can get a basic keyboard and mouse combo for £20-30 (order online if you need to). That'll then give you the freedom to rearrange your set-up to make it much more ergonomic.

Once you've attached your keyboard and mouse, you can move your laptop, which you're now using as your screen so that it's the right distance away (about arm's length from where you're sitting) and by propping it up on some books or folders, ensuring it's the right height (with the top of the screen at roughly eye level).

Then you need your keyboard and mouse nice and close to you near the edge of the desk or table you're working at. What you really want is to keep your arms directly in front of you as you work without having to stretch too far for either your keyboard or your mouse. Ideally, you want to keep the top part of both arms hanging loosely by the sides of your body. Personally, I have a short keyboard without a number pad because it allows me to keep my mouse close rather than having to stretch out to the side for it.

Stretching mouse hand out to the side with a standard keyboard

Less stretch with a shorter keyboard

The next thing to check is the height of your chair relative to you 'desk'. You may not have the luxury of a proper office chair when you're working at the kitchen table, but there are still some basic things you can do to help you sit better. The key thing to aim for here is that your seat should be high enough so that if you let your arms hang down loosely from your shoulders, your elbows should be either at or slightly above the level of your 'desk'. That means that when you type or use your mouse, your whole arm can stay relaxed. If your chair is too low and you're reaching up for your keyboard, the tendency will be for your shoulders to creep up and create tension. So if the chair you have is too low, go find a cushion (or two) to raise you up a bit. And if that leaves you with your feet dangling off the floor, find a box or something to put your feet on and relieve the pressure on your legs.

Chair too low and hands reaching up for the keyboard

A much better elbow angle with a couple of cushions

Now you've got your set-up right, the key is to stay as relaxed as possible when you're working and to sit back in your chair as much as possible so that your back's supported – again a cushion might help on a hard chair. And of course, take regular breaks too. Especially without your usual office chair, these become even more important than ever.

Wishing everyone good luck adjusting to home working!

PS. Special thanks to Tris for patiently posing for photos.

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Saturday, March 14, 2020

Coronavirus, cancellations and cashflow

Phew! It's been a stressful couple of weeks and I'm very pleased to have reached the weekend, albeit I'm still at my desk catching up after all the disruptions of the week.

Before I go any further I should say that I know lots of people have been hit much harder by the current situation than I have in all kinds of ways. However, I think we all need to let off steam to keep us sane, so I thought I'd share my perspective as an ELT freelancer trying to deal with the effects of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

You'd think that as a freelance writer who spends most of my time plodding away at my desk at home, I'd be barely affected. And at other times of year, that would be true. I just checked and my last non-desk-based bit of work was last August … OMG, that's a full 6 months without face-to-face contact with a work colleague! I should be really good at this self-isolation thing! However, we're just coming up to the main conference season and I had a whole load of face-to-face gigs planned in … and was really quite excited at the prospect of a bit of human contact.

Wall planner showing now cancelled events

Prague: The first casualty was a planned trip to Prague last week. I was due to be teaching a two-day intensive EAP course with a large group of students at a Czech university. The day before I was due to fly out, I got an email from my contact saying that a member of staff at the university had tested positive for coronavirus, the university had been shut and my course would have to be cancelled.

The situation was a bit discombobulating … I'd been quite keyed up about the teaching, which was a bit out of my comfort zone, so I'd completely over-prepared and then the sudden come-down left me feeling at a loss. Then as I came down from that, the realization of the lost income kicked in. I'd paid out on non-refundable flights which the university has said they'll refund, but the loss of the fee was something I could have done without, especially after having had no income at all through January (mostly down to a delayed piece of work) – I'd been banking on this income to get me back on track.

Covering the gap: As I was contemplating that loss and looking ahead to whether my next big gig, IATEFL, was also going to bite the dust, I got an email asking if I could fit in some writing work at short notice. They really wanted someone to start immediately on a job to be finished by the end of April.  I'm in the middle of another piece of work which is due to see me busy till the end of next week (at least), so I couldn't start straight away and I still had a week blocked out in my schedule for IATEFL. That would have given me just 4 weeks to do a 6-7 week job. I explained this to the commissioning editor, but said I'd give it a go anyway.

There followed a flurry of emails with the editors managing the project (two, because it's for two different levels) trying to work out a schedule for drafts and feedback etc. that would get both levels finished by their deadlines. At the same time, I was watching social media to see what was going to happen about IATEFL and working out different scheduling scenarios with and without a trip to Manchester … and at the same time trying to focus on my current work, aware that I needed to make progress more quickly to get that done.

The physical effects: The result was a physical mess. As some of you will know, I've suffered from chronic pain for many years. Over the past few months, I thought I'd finally cracked it and had been fairly pain-free (a subject for another post!). But with the tension building up in my shoulders from all the emailing to and fro, and uncertainty and worry over finances at the same time as trying to press on with some fairly fiddly corpus work … by Wednesday, the knots in my shoulders reached a critical mass and I was in so much pain I was in tears. And also feeling desperately deflated that all my hard work over the last few months to get myself physically in a good place had been undone.

IATEFL: Then yesterday, IATEFL was finally cancelled along with another conference I was due to be going to in June. Mostly that was a relief, both just to know what was happening, but also to free up a bit more time for the extra work I've taken on. But it also throws up a whole load more financial issues. I've already paid out for non-refundable accommodation for the week and for the registration fee. And as I was due to be speaking for a publisher, there was a fee + expenses attached. I'm yet to find out what I might get back or what might get carried over to next year (not very helpful when I'm struggling now) – that's next week's mess to untangle.

The financial hit: It's difficult to know exactly what the full financial impact will be until everything shakes out and I still have one more event in May which hasn't yet been cancelled, but I suspect will be. But at the moment, it's looking something like this.

Graphic showing potential losses: £950 in money already paid out, £3800 in lost income, total of £4750

That's a lot of income to lose in a short timescale, especially when my total average annual income is only around £25K. The extra work I've managed to pick up through April will cover some of that, but it's still going to be a tight couple of months.

Having reached the weekend, although I'm still working today, at least all the emails and announcements have stopped, so I can relax a bit and take stock. I know that most of the stress and hassle of the past couple of weeks has been short-term and I'm hopeful that the pain will be too and I'll soon be back on track physically. The financial impact will be more long-lasting, but I'll work that out somehow too. Tomorrow will be a full day off and although it's due to rain, I bought my partner a new waterproof coat for his birthday this week, so we'll be going out to splash in the puddles!

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