Ergonomics of Working Remotely: Position in Life is Everything

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By Barbara Roberts
A supervisor during my occupational therapy internship in spinal cord rehab taught me, with only a little tongue-in-cheek, that “Position in life is everything...”; that is, the physical position you are in to do any task affects your safety, comfort, endurance and effectiveness for the task. Earlier in life, when learning to use a hammer effectively, instead of whacking the nail at some odd angle, my father taught me to “Get your [backside] behind you.” Good advice when positioning to exert force. Position matters.

Position Matters

As a licensed Occupational Therapist in the field of higher education, I have long appreciated the ergonomics of sitting in classes, studying, working, writing, dictating, or standing to teach, dictate, write exams... Whether on a computer, or manually taking notes, meeting or writing, the position we are in affects our health and function. We injure ourselves with improper positioning and bad body mechanics when we lift, push, or carry. We exhaust ourselves straining neck and shoulders to see a poorly positioned monitor, and we give ourselves carpal tunnel and repetitive straining injuries by misplacing our keyboard or mouse. I once realized I had developed plantar fasciitis from the way I constantly positioned my foot while sitting in a chair that was two inches too high to sit flat-footed. Changed my position, foot got better. (OK, some PT helped as well! But it was the repositioning that prevented a recurrence.)

With all this online work we’re doing, sitting in new, less-than-perfect workspaces, for prolonged periods as one meeting after another unfolds on our screens, I thought it could be helpful to talk about how to make this a healthier, more safe and comfortable experience as we work in this brave new world of doing everything remotely. 

Ergonomic positioning starts with one measurement - the length of your lower leg. The length of your lower leg determines how high your chair should be off the floor, to allow you to sit with your feet and knees at a 900 angle.  From there, maintaining a 900 angle for hips and elbows will identify where to put your chair, arm rests, your keyboard and desk surface. If your chair and table don’t align, put a footrest under your feet to raise them to the proper height to get a 900 angle at ankles, knees, hips and elbows.

Seated in that position, with your back straight and your head in “neutral” (no chin jutting forward or tucked in), place the center of your monitor arm’s length from your eyes, with your eyes looking slightly downward. Use a thick book to raise it, or reposition yourself lower to align. Get yourself into this position, and you are ready to put your mouse in easy reach on a flat surface where you can use the largest joint to move it - not just cocking your wrist at an angle, but using also your elbow or shoulder to move it around, too. 

There’s more to it, but that’s a start for today!  Various musculoskeletal conditions require variations and adaptions - more or less lumbar support, seat angles, rocking seats or standing desks, etc. but that’s a topic for individual consideration. With frequent breaks to stand, walk and stretch, better positioning will lead to more comfortable, safe and effective work online. For more information, you can also contact Health4U’s TJ Hall at halltim2@msu.edu and check out some illustrations of the basics here: http://ergonomictrends.com/creating-perfect-ergonomic-workspace-ultimate-guide/    

See you on Zoom and Teams! In the meantime, check out this YouTube video shared by TJ Hall, Program Consultant, MSU Moves