Here is how working from home is destroying your body

Rear view of young woman with lifted up top rubbing her back

Working from home has quickly become the new normal for tens of millions of Americans. While the concept of working from one’s couch or bedroom seemed strange just a few months ago, many have started to appreciate and embrace the simplicity of rolling right out of bed and into their home “office.”

However, for all of the perks that come along with remote work (no commute, no dress code), there are some drawbacks as well. A new study from the University of Cincinnati has found that many people working from home aren’t taking the right precautions to protect their backs, postures, and overall body alignment.

Laptops, couches, beds, and futons just aren’t designed or intended to offer the body proper support throughout an eight hour plus workday. You may not miss your old office desk, chair, and desktop computer, but after a few months of working from home, it’s safe to say your back will.

“The body doesn’t like static postures continually,” explains Kermit Davis, Ph.D., lead study author, and an office ergonomics expert at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, in a release. “You don’t want to do all sitting or all standing all the time. You want to alter your position and change it up throughout the day.”

One or two days spent answering emails on the couch isn’t going to seriously harm anyone’s back or posture, but when days turn to weeks and months, it’s time to start making some adjustments to one’s “home office.”

“You can go home but you aren’t allowed to take the monitor, chair and most office equipment,” Davis says. “You can use your laptop from home, but it is designed to be a short-term option. It should be used for a few hours while traveling. It is not meant to be used for eight or nine hours each day.”

Laptop screens and keyboards are, by their very nature, always smaller than desktop computers. As such, laptop users usually have to tilt their necks at a downward angle. When this happens day in and day out it can wreak havoc on the neck.

When professor Davis initially decided to investigate this topic, he sent out a home office survey to 4,500 University of Cincinnati employees working from home due to the pandemic. All in all, 843 people returned the survey, and 41 respondents even sent in pictures of their home workstations. Those responses revealed several concerning, and common, home office mistakes.

Many workers’ chairs were too low (41%), and some were too high (2%). While 53% of respondents reported that their home office chair has armrests, which is a positive, 32% said they don’t actually use them at all and 18% of those armrests were incorrectly adjusted. Additionally, close to three-fourths reported not supporting their lower backs while working from home.

Respondents’ computer monitors were frequently too low or off to the side as well. A full 75% of remote workers’ computers were laptops (and thus too low to meet workers’ eye heights). Even when respondents did have an external monitor to work with, 52% of those were still set up too low. Finally, a significant portion of workers’ primary monitors was not placed front and center (31%), resulting in tons of unnecessary neck turning and twisting.

So, are remote workers these days doomed to a life of hunched backs and neck pain? Not at all. Professor Davis has several easy suggestions that can make working from home much safer for the back, neck, and shoulders.

  • Right off the bat, always try and get up and stretch your legs roughly every 30 minutes.
  • If the seat you usually use for work is especially low, try putting a pillow underneath to raise its height.
  • Similarly, placing a pillow or rolled-up towel behind your back while working can add more lumbar and back support.
  • If your laptop screen rests far too low for your line of sight, put a lap desk or pillow underneath it.
  • Always try to have your back resting firmly up against your chair.
  • Try wrapping your chair’s armrests if they are too low and or non-adjustable.
  • If you’re really missing your old office desk setup, try hooking up your laptop to an external mouse and keyboard and then placing the laptop on a stack of books. This way, the laptop essentially only functions as a monitor.

What about a standing workstation? If you would like to try this approach, professor Davis says that the ideal standing desk should place the computer screen directly in front of, and at eye height with, the worker. The keyboard, meanwhile, should be situated so that one’s forearms are parallel to the ground (at a roughly 90° elbow angle). Also, it’s always a good idea to make sure the edges of the work surface are soft, rounded, and dull.

Of course, not everyone has access to the same resources, and some workers may feel like there’s just no plausible way for them to construct a healthy home work station. In this scenario, professor Davis believes alternating between a poor sitting workstation and some type of standing working arrangement is the best way to mitigate bodily damage. If you’re looking for a makeshift standing workstation in a pinch, he suggests using an ironing board, kitchen counter, or even a laundry hamper placed on top of a sitting desk.

The full study can be found here, published in Ergonomics in Design.