In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry discusses the importance of good ergonomic environments for your remote work employees.
The remote worker typing away while lounging on a comfy couch or bed is a familiar image. When employees do this routinely, however, they can develop musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), which is not only bad news for their quality of life but also impacts business via increased healthcare costs and decreased productivity.
Companies that wish to permanently adopt remote work must do more than simply send workers home with a laptop. Ensuring remote employees are operating with good ergonomics and have a positive at-home work environment is essential to long-term remote work success.
When remote workers operate with poor ergonomics, the impact on a company’s bottom line can be significant. The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites MSDs as the most common type of workplace injury, amounting to around 30 percent of worker compensation costs.
The problem has only worsened since COVID-19 sent workers everywhere home for months. A 2020 survey found that 40 percent of employees developed new or worsened MSDs once they began working from home at the beginning of the pandemic. Insurance companies back this up, predicting a rise in disability claims this year, in part because employees are working under less-than-ideal conditions.
While research shows that remote workers are often more engaged and happier than their peers in less flexible arrangements, poor ergonomics can offset those gains. Away from well-lit, ergonomically designed offices with perks such as coffee machines and snacks, remote employees can feel decreased job satisfaction. Ensuring they have a good setup is key to combating this.
The Basics of Good Ergonomics
Kermit Davis, a professor of the University of Cincinnati in the College of Medicine’s Department of Environment and Public Health Sciences and a certified professional ergonomist, conducted surveys of university faculty and staff at the beginning of the pandemic and again in October. The main finding: Most workers’ at-home setups had poor ergonomics, leading to prevalent back, shoulder and neck discomfort.
According to Davis, an ergonomically correct at-home workstation would start with a desk, table or chair (no beds, couches or the floor) and would also include:
- An adjustable office chair with lumbar and arm support. “Using a chair without armrests causes stress on your forearms and strains your upper back,” Davis says. If it’s not possible to use an office chair, Davis says employees can simply place a small towel on the edge of the table to prevent contact stress. A rolled-up towel can also provide lumbar support.
- An external monitor, mouse and keyboard. The monitor should be centered and placed so the top is at eye height to avoid employees from having to look down as they work – a stack of books or a box is an easy fix if needed. “A laptop is only meant to be used for a few hours, so adding an external monitor to the right height is critical,” Davis says.
- Minimized glare. Glare is an often-overlooked concern for the at-home worker. “Homes typically contain more windows than an office, due to sunlight exposure through untreated glass,” Davis says. To combat the problem, he suggests orienting the workstation so the monitors are perpendicular to the windows, with the windows behind the monitor if possible.
Ergonomics doesn’t end with having the proper equipment and setup, however. It’s no secret that too much sitting is bad for your health – studies have linked it with increased risks of diabetes, heart disease and even death.
That’s why it’s essential that remote workers regularly get up and move, ideally every half an hour. Research suggests that remote workers move less frequently than they would if they were in an office, where they’d be walking to meetings or to have a quick chat with a teammate and making longer treks to the office restroom. “Just standing up for a few minutes can be very powerful – our previous work found this can significantly decrease discomfort and increase productivity,” Davis says.
Ergonomics Is Employee Wellness
In the remote work era, companies must make efforts to help their employees operate with good ergonomics in the home. Leaders should factor ergonomics into employee wellness initiatives and include ergonomics training in onboarding activities.
They also must take a flexible approach – it won’t work for businesses to simply bulk order office chairs or adjustable desks and have them delivered to employees’ homes. Leaders must educate employees on why ergonomics matters and invest in helping their employees achieve it, giving them funds to upgrade their office chair and purchase external monitors, keyboards, headsets and other equipment that will make them more comfortable. The upfront investment will cost far less in the long run than the increased healthcare costs and attrition should employees work long-term hunched over a laptop.