For a writer, the home office can be the birthplace of many stories and books. But it can also be the place where carpal tunnel starts, muscles become strained, and back pain turns into a chronic, undeniable problem. Perhaps one day a writer sits hunched over the breakfast bar in her kitchen or the next she sits at a desk, with her head hunched forward, peering at her too-close screen. A day of strain in itself probably won’t cause a permanent problem, but having a setup that works for you in your home office can make a huge difference in how you feel.
If you work full time, you spend over 2,000 hours at your desk each year. Setting up a workplace that supports your body and fosters productivity takes just a few minutes. So, grab a cup of coffee (or tea, or milk, or wine), take a step back from your workspace and adjust it so it works for you. It’s about time your desk did something for you other than give you aches, strains, and headaches.
Got a laptop? Get an external keyboard and monitor
It can be tempting to work solely on a laptop. For one, doing so means that wherever you go, you have all of your files. But when you use a laptop, a whole host of ergonomic problems can arise. Not only are your elbows often elevated from where they should be, but also your screen is often too low, causing you to either slouch or angle your head toward your screen, putting pounds of pressure on your neck and spine.
Tamara James, assistant professor and ergonomics division director at Duke University, says “laptops are really designed for short-term use.” She adds that they’re just not ergonomically designed for long-term applications. With a laptop, everything (trackpad, keyboard, screen) is usually stuck in the position it comes in. This means if you set up camp at the breakfast nook, your arms are likely tilted up and your back hunched as you try to adjust your body to the device in front of you. Instead of doing this, invest in an external keyboard and monitor – you still get the benefits of working on just one system, without the physical drawbacks of working on a laptop alone.
The best position for your monitor is almost level with your eyes, says Janet Peterson, an ergonomic consultant in the Seattle area who holds a doctorate of physical therapy. You want the top of the monitor about 1 to 2 inches above eye level. This is a neutral position that won’t strain your back.
Meanwhile, you want your keyboard just above lap level. This will create a 90-degree angle at your elbows. Most people sit with their elbows about 25 to 27 inches from the ground, says James. However, most desks are 29 to 30 inches off the ground. This discrepancy causes pressure on the wrist.
So what do you do? Look for a desk with a pull-out shelf, invest in a short desk, or consider purchasing a desk that you can adjust the legs on, such as cutting them down to size.
Adjust your seat
So, what about your chair? Can’t you just get a tall office chair that will put your elbows at the right height instead of investing in a short desk? Sure. However, in doing so, you may create new problems. For instance, your feet may not reach the floor if you get a chair that is too high. If that’s the case, you can adjust by getting a box or other footrest to put your feet on. Reaching the floor means you can sit straight in your chair – the best posture for your back, shoulders, and wrists.
As a researcher and professor at Duke, James has looked specifically at lighting in workspaces. In her research, she has found that people naturally contort their bodies to adjust to overhead lighting. If you’re working with a document, James says, the best thing to do is to use a task light to specifically illuminate the document on your desk. Don’t move your body to see your document; move your light so you can see it from a comfortable position.
As far as working on a computer, she says she’s noticed that people who work with overhead lighting often turn up the brightness on their computer to compensate for the bright lights above them. “Turn it off,” she says, explaining that natural light is your friend when working from home. “It’s actually better to work in lower light levels when using a computer.” Excess brightness can strain your eyes.
Listen to your body
The No. 1 thing you can do for yourself if you work from home is listen to your body. A sore neck or kink in your back is a sign that what you’re doing is wrong. James advises, “If you feel pain or discomfort when you’re doing something, you need to change what you’re doing.” Usually changing your chair position, keyboard position, or monitor position should clear up any issues, and the effect should be fairly noticeable soon after you make an adjustment, says Peterson. However, she says, it may take more time for symptoms to lessen if you’re making adjustments to fix a more chronic, long-term problem. “Since they usually come on gradually, they will decrease gradually as well,” she says.
Still stumped? You may want to consider consulting an ergonomics expert. Many consultants will do a one-on-one in-home evaluation of your workspace. If you hire a consultant, Peterson says one thing to ask for is if the specialist has an affiliation with a vendor. You shouldn’t feel obligated to buy from a particular company, she says. “There are nearly always options for the same type of equipment from different vendors.”
Try these exercises to help relieve tension.
Stand up. Gently tilt the top of your head left toward your shoulder. Move it back to center. Do the same on the right side. As you move your head left to right you should make a motion that resembles a windshield wiper. Repeat five times.
Hold on to the back of your chair or another similarly tall object, like a couch. Lift one leg directly backward, keeping the knees in both legs straight. Return leg. Repeat with other leg.
Stand up. Reach one arm back so that your hand is resting squarely on your back, like if you were to scratch it. Use your other hand to grab the elbow of the first arm. This should mean one of your elbows is pointed directly up and your other elbow is pointed to the side. Gently pull your upwards elbow with your opposite hand. Count to five. Repeat with your other arm.
Reach up. Interlace your fingers. Position your palms toward the ceiling. Push up and slightly back. Count to five. Repeat.
Exercises courtesy of the Duke Occupational & Environmental Safety Office.
Melissa Haskin is an Oregon-based food and health writer. Her work has appeared in Men’s Health, Cooking Light, Oregon Healthy Living, and various other national and regional publications. In her free time she enjoys eating, eating more, and bicycle riding.
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