10 in 10 Features Health Tips

Mind your back – and well-being

Researcher breaks down ergonomics for the home office

During the pandemic, our homes have transformed into gyms, classrooms and home offices. Researchers have long studied how working at a desk takes a toll on our bodies, and the risks they’ve uncovered don’t go away just because we’re at home.

One such researcher is Jay Kim, assistant professor environmental and occupational health in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and an expert in occupational ergonomics and biomechanics.

His No. 1 tip while working remotely? Fight the temptation to work from your couch or bed. Instead, create a separate workspace, which will help develop daily routines and boost productivity.

“Working from home, we often work from anywhere and everywhere,” he says. “When doing this, we abandon the daily routines we may have had in the office. Studies have shown there are physiological effects and a decrease in productivity when we have this lack of a routine.” 

You don’t need to recreate your cubicle, but he points out that there are important ergonomic principles to consider when setting up a home workspace. Key factors include raising your monitors or laptops to eye level, using external keyboards and mice, and ensuring there is enough distance between you and your computer to avoid eye strain.

Jay says that having a regular home exercise routine and taking frequent stretch breaks are helpful ways to get your body moving and avoid permeant damage to your muscular system.

Jay Kim showing his correct home office setup
Jay Kim presents his home office setup and points out the areas to pay most attention to, including having your monitor at least an arms-length away.

“At work, you are physically active, when you go to face-to-face meetings or walk around. When you are at home, you can spend eight hours or longer sitting at your desk, and our body’s lumbar [spine] is not designed for this.”

Ignoring signals of pain and discomfort from our bodies can develop into musculoskeletal disorders, inflammatory and degenerative conditions that affect the body’s soft tissues, ligaments, tendons and muscles, which he says accounts for one-third of worker compensation claims made in America.

When people disregard this pain and therefore musculoskeletal disorders are developed, the recovery time can be two to three times longer as compared to the average recovery time of all other types of occupational injuries. He also points out that most pain from an ergonomic point-of-view doesn’t occur from a single event, but instead develops and worsens over time.

“Our bodies are pretty resilient, but at the same time, they are fragile,” he says. “Listen to your body.” 

Adult bodies aren’t the only ones we should be listening to. As students across the country prepare to attend school virtually, Jay says daily routines and ergonomics are essential for young adults and children to practice at home.

He suggests setting schedules for rest from devices, reading paper-based books and getting kids outside whenever possible. 

“It’s inevitable to avoid our kids being online and using devices during the pandemic. If you’re concerned about their screen time, send them outside to soak up the sun and some vitamin D,” he says. 

This story is adapted from our “10 in 10” video series: 10 questions, in 10 minutes, with a college faculty member on a topic related to human health and well-being. Want more? Read the latest on Synergies and watch full episodes on the college’s YouTube channel.