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Floyd Blaikie didn’t think she’d need to bring home her office chair.

Four weeks ago, her employer, the Halifax-based digital marketing firm Kula Partners, told employees they would be working from home. Realizing she was likely to be at this for awhile, Blaikie collected some of  her equipment — but not the chair.

“I took my monitor and my keyboard, and thought I’d sit on my kitchen chair and it would be fine. I thought it was funny that some people were taking their big rolling chair home, but I have two toddlers and I thought,  ‘I won’t even be able to sit in it because it will become their new toy and it will be covered in yogurt.’”

Blaikie’s desk chair was about the same height as her kitchen chair, and she already worked from home without it two days a week anyway. What could go wrong?

At first, she thought the issue was that she hadn’t been able to go to the gym and needed to stretch more. But, “Despite all my stretching exercises, it got worse to the point where I couldn’t turn my neck. I thought I wouldn’t even be able to drive because I couldn’t do a shoulder check. And then I realized it was probably because I was in a super-crappy wooden chair that came from Amazon.”

Several people on Twitter told Blaikie that yes, this was entirely possible. Her boss, Jeff White, who, Blaikie says, “has a truck and is always looking for an excuse to use it” picked up her office chair for her and dropped it off in her driveway.

“Within three days or less of getting back into the ergonomic chair, the pain was gone,” she says.

I could relate to Blaikie’s story.

In February, I decided I was tired of working from my office and needed a change. I spent a week working at the kitchen island, at the dining room table, on the couch, and, probably most ill-advisedly, while sitting in one of those ubiquitous IKEA POÄNG chairs.

Do not work out of this chair.

After a week of this, I started to feel intense lower back pain, and realized maybe anywhere but my desk was not such a good idea.

I had a properly outfitted and reasonably ergonomic home office to go back to. But many people now working from home don’t.

“People often use ergonomics as an adjective — ‘that chair is ergonomic’ — but really ergonomics is your interaction with the environment. You might have the best chair, but if you’re not interacting with it properly, you’re going to have ergonomic risk factors,” says occupational therapist Karen Joudrey. “It’s very individual. Ergonomics is your interaction with your environment. The perfect setup for me is not going to work for you.”

Headshot of Karen Joudrey
Occupational therapist Karen Joudrey. Photo: Dalhousie University

Joudrey teaches in the Dalhousie School of Occupational Therapy, and is the coordinator of the university’s Disability Management certificate program. She’s also a disability management consultant regionally for Bell Canada.  She says most people who find themselves unexpectedly working from home are probably using laptops, and while they are “fantastic and easy to move around.. for long-term use they have a lot of ergonomic risk factors.”

She starts listing those factors: “There’s no wrist support, you’re looking down at the screen… And if you’re sitting on the couch looking down, this is giving you ergonomic risk factors.” Joudrey says you’ll likely feel pain “within a few days or certainly a couple of weeks.”

Looking down at your screen is bad, so sitting on the couch (or that IKEA chair) is not a great idea. The kitchen table has its problems too. “People are going to wind up resting their wrists on the edge of the table and that’s a known risk factor for carpal tunnel,” Joudrey says. “Anytime you’re putting pressure on the place where your wrist meets your palm, that’s problematic.”

And what about using a phone or tablet instead? Not great. Joudrey explains that either you’re looking down at it “and if it’s propped up, you’re reaching up. There is no way to have an optimal posture when you’re using those.”

So, what can you do? Well, if you can get yourself a decent chair, do it.

That’s the approach Steve McCullough, a digital content creator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, took. McCullough used to freelance from home, but when he gave that up four years ago, he got rid of his home office furniture. Once he started working from home for the museum, he set up at “a very small IKEA desk” and sat in “a dining room chair that was definitely uncomfortable for any length of time.”
So he went out and bought himself a good office chair. McCullough says, “It took a couple of days for it to sink in that we could be working from home for longer rather than shorter… The terrible chair was unsustainable, and I realized that there might be a run on home office supplies much as there had been a run on toilet paper. So I decided the infectious risk of an outing was better than the ergonomic risk of my awful chair.”
Herman Miller Aeron office chair
I do not own a Herman Miller Aeron, but I’d buy one if I could afford it. They are a pleasure to write in.

But even if you don’t have a good chair, don’t worry.

Joudrey says there are some guidelines you should follow, and the most basic is what she calls the Rule of 90: “You should be sitting so your hips are at 90 degrees, your knees are at 90 degrees, and your feet are at 90 degrees. When your knees are higher or lower than your hips you’re going to get into back pain.”

(When Joudrey said this, I looked down at my upper legs, which were most definitely not at 90 degrees, and lowered my seat.)

If you can’t adjust your chair to get that ideal 90-90-90, Joudrey says you could try moving to a shorter chair or sitting on cushion.

“Once we’ve got the lower body sorted, your shoulders should be relaxed, ideally on armrests that allow our elbows to be at 90 degrees, and your keyboard should sit in line with your elbow,” Joudrey says. “The problem with laptops is you can’t achieve that. Your screen should be one arm’s length away and level with your eyes.  You can’t achieve that with a laptop either, so I often recommend getting it up on a laptop stand.” If you don’t have a stand, use a pile of books, a box, “anything that’s not going to heat up” Joudrey says. She adds, “If you have an external monitor that’s great. A better solution is to get an external keyboard and mouse.”

When it comes to adjustments, Joudrey says towels are the occupational therapist’s go-to because they are so versatile. Roll up a towel and put it under your wrists to provide support if you’re working on a laptop keyboard at the kitchen table. If you’re having trouble getting that ideal 90-90-90 in your office chair, a rolled-up towel behind your back might help. That can help move you forward enough so that your legs aren’t right up against the front of the chair.

And finally, no matter what the setup, make sure to get up and move around. Surprisingly, that may be harder at home, where you don’t have the rhythms of office life, meetings, and co-worker interruptions to break things up.

“In the office, I’m always getting up and down,” Blaikie says. “We work in a sort of open concept office so I’m getting up and talking to people. Working from home, it’s easy to just sit down for hours and hours and hours without moving. I definitely recommend getting up and doing a lap, and if that lap is to the fridge to get snacks, that’s fine.”

Joudrey doesn’t recommend the fridge, but she does say to take a 20-second break every 20 minutes, and refocus your eyes on something 20 feet away. And you can use that as a reminder to get up too. “Take lots of breaks and stay hydrated,” Joudrey says. “Take micro-breaks, wash your hands — that might be appropriate these days — and you can do some arm circles while waiting for your hands to dry.”

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Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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  1. An interesting question would be the applicability of workers compensation and occupational health and safety considerations to the home office
    In the normal course of events the employer maintains a responsibility to insure adequate Accommodation when by virtue of the employers decision work is carried out from the home. In our Covid world everything happened so quickly
    Equally interesting perhaps is whether the Rapid increase in the number of home based offices and businesses Will run afoul of municipal regulations

    Jeff Douglas one afternoon last week interviewed a person who was encountering the challenges of having a two-year-old who would like to run around and make the noise that a two-year-old makes white was becoming very distracting to those working from home in the apartment building. They were invoking the help of the landlord To ensure a quiet environment in the daytime. I was left wondering whether the standard apartment lease Nova Scotia accommodates home occupations.