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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Blogger Unknown said...

As a new 'home-worker' (self-employed, not all due to Covid-19), I'm very grateful for this advice, Julie, thank you. I shall be investing in a separate keyboard and mouse to start with. Would you also suggest any form of gel wrist support at all, either for the keyboard or mouse, or would the correct positioning negate the need for this extra support? Thanks again!

11:12 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

I'm not a qualified ergonomist, so I'm not 100% certain on the pros and cons of wrist supports. I think it comes down to what you find most comfortable. I actually mostly use a graphics tablet instead of a mouse and I do use a gel wrist support with that. I think the only danger is that a wrist support rather encourages you to leave your hand resting in the same position when you don't need to. If you're not typing or using your mouse, for example, reading something on screen, it's really good practice to move you hands back from the desk and maybe rest them in your lap.

11:18 am  
Blogger KB said...

I feel like the princess & the pea on my two seat cushions, and one back cushion, but it's definitely better than none!

8:40 pm  
Blogger Mike Ray said...

I’m wondering what I can do because it feels like my chair is too high. It makes me slump forward on the desk when I rest my elbows on the table. Might get a different chair.

3:40 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Mike, yes, probably easiest to try and find a lower chair.

BTW, it's really bad for your posture generally to rest your elbows on your table/desk (whatever its height) as it means you're leaning forward. You should spend as much time as possible sitting back in your chair. I got into the habit of leaning on my desk at one point and ended up putting blobs of Blu-tack along the edge of the desk to stop me doing it!

8:57 am  

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