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How to Create a Healthier Home Office

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Freelancers are notorious for working wherever we can—at the dining room table, sitting on the couch, or even lying in bed.

The ability to work anywhere can be incredibly freeing. You should know, though, that not all home office spaces are created equal. If your workspace is poorly designed, it could harm your health.

Since you spend hours in your home office, let's make sure that office is healthy.

How Your Home Office Affects You

Your home office affects both how you feel and how much work you get done. With a good ergonomically sound office you'll do more and feel better doing it. Ergonomics is the science of making objects and spaces safer and more efficient.

Studies show that workers with better designed offices tend to get more done. For example, a year-long study conducted by the Carlson School of Management shows that the productivity of workers who replaced their office chairs with a treadmill improved noticeably. That's just one type of ergonomic improvement that can be made.

A poorly set up office can even affect your health. Here are some examples of common problems:

  • work-related muscular skeletal disorders (WMSD)
  • neck strain
  • shoulder pain
  • wrist pain
  • lower back pain
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • elbow pain
  • eyestrain due to poor lighting
  • stress due to noise or clutter
  • weight gain due to being sedentary

You can find a more complete discussion of workplace injuries in Office Ergonomics: Practical solutions for a safer workplace by the WISHA Services Division Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

Jennifer Mattern, a freelance business writer who switched over to a standing desk, can attest to the back pain caused by a poor workstation. She says:

Before [I went to a standing desk], I would get lower back pain--especially when I was in one of my "workaholic" sessions.

Ergonomics makes such a difference that the United States Department of Labor devoted an entire web page to ergonomic success stories. It lists many organizations whose ergonomic changes resulted in health and productivity benefits.

Many freelancers don't put much thought into their home office set up. That's a shame since freelancers are usually paid by the work they complete. A less productive freelancer is also a freelancer who gets paid less.

Your Home Office Set Up

Is your home office set up ideal for your health and productivity?

New freelancers often furnish their office with used and low cost furniture. When their freelance business grows, they are too busy to upgrade to better furnishings. So, the old uncomfortable office winds up staying.

There are some things you can do right now to improve your home office ergonomics. Let's take a look at  your desk, your electronics, and your chair. Proper positioning of these pieces can make a huge difference in your comfort. Posture is also important.

Note: I'm not a doctor. If you still have pain after adjusting your workstation or following any of the advice in this article, please consult a medical professional.

Your Desk

If you use a conventional desk, make sure it's high enough so you don't have to hunch over to work. It should not be so high that your wrists are at an uncomfortable angle. The right height varies, depending on how tall you are.

The Mayo Clinic offers some guidance in their office ergonomics guide. According to the guide, your desk should be up to 86cm (34in) high. Keep the space under your desk free from storage so that your legs and feet can rest flat on the floor.

Experiment to find the right desk height for you. When you buy a new or used desk, bring a tape measure. Measure the height of the work surface before you make the purchase.

Electronic Equipment

If you're like most home office workers, you have more than one device. You probably have a desktop computer, a laptop, a tablet, and a smart phone. Your office may be set up properly for one type of device (perhaps a desktop computer), but ignore the ergonomic risks associated with the others.

The position of your electronic device as you work affects your comfort. If your screen is too low (such as when you work on a tablet) you may hunch down and wind up with back or shoulder pain. A too-high monitor could cause neck strain.

These steps will help you work comfortably using your electronic devices:

  1. Choose a primary device. Set your workspace up for the electronic device you use the most, but you should also be able to use your other devices comfortably. Consider placing a table beside your desk for your mobile electronic devices. If your chair has rollers, you can roll to the table to use a different device. Use stands and risers to adjust the screen height of your mobile devices.
  2. Examine the screen height. When you sit up straight you should look directly at the screen. You should not have to look up or down. If needed, use a stand or risers to raise the screen of your device. If you have a laptop, use a separate monitor to make sure that the screen is always at the right height.
  3. Set the distance. Your computer should be close enough so that you don't lean forward to work on it. You should be able to just touch the screen with your fingertips when you sit up straight. If you can't reach it, the screen is too far away. If your fingers extend past the screen, you are too close.

Cnet.com offers more guidance for setting up your office in How to set up an ergonomic workstation by Sharon Profis.

Your Chair

If you sit when you work, you spend a lot of time in your office chair. It's important to find a chair that's comfortable and provides you with proper back support. Freelance writer Jake Poinier agrees. He spends part of his work day standing. When he sits down it is on his ergonomic Herman Miller Aeron chair that he picked out secondhand a few years ago. Poinier says:

When you spend a lot of time at your desk, comfort is important. It [my chair] is perfect for me. It has breathable fabric, and living in Arizona as I do, that's important.

Herman Miller is one of several brands of office chairs that focus on ergonomics and workspace comfort. Other popular ergonomic brands include Haworth and Humanscale.

These chairs don't come cheap. The cost of a new ergonomic chair can range from several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars. However, the right chair can make a real difference in productivity and comfort.

Here's what to look for in an ergonomic chair:

  • adjustable height
  • back support, particularly the lumbar area
  • arm rests level with keyboard
  • ability to flex

Posture

An ergonomic workstation won't help if you don't pay attention to your posture. I'm the worst at this. If I don't make a conscious effort, I slouch in my chair while I work. Of course, an afternoon of this bad posture causes my back to hurt.

Since I know that posture is important, I've been making a conscious effort to pay more attention to my posture. Guess what? It works. When I sit up straight in my chair, I have less back and neck pain. You can do the same, here's how:

  1. Adjust chair height and arms properly. Sit with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Check your back support. If your chair does not provide enough back support, add a pillow to help support the lumbar area.
  3. Center your chair. You should be directly in front of your main work screen.
  4. Sit up straight. Don't slouch or lean. (If you need to slouch or lean forward to see your screen, you may need to adjust your desk or screen.)
  5. Take regular breaks. No matter how good your posture, it's not good to sit all the time.

What if you don't sit all day?

Some freelance professionals, such as photographers stand a great deal. If this is you, don't be fooled into thinking that you don't have to worry about ergonomics and posture because you don't sit down. Check out our tutorial on ergonomics for freelance photographers for some helpful tips on how to avoid injury.

Workstation Alternatives

If you have a lot of discomfort when you work or if you worry about being too sedentary, consider a workstation alternative. There are many different desk arrangements for home-based computer workers. Not all those arrangements involve a chair and desk. Here are some alternative workstation setups:

  • standing desk
  • fitness ball chair
  • treadmill desk
  • kneeling chair

The most common option among the home based professionals I talked to was the standing desk. Independent journalist Samantha Gluck explains why she adopted a standing desk:

I was sitting for long period of time. I was also looking for ways to enhance my health. I thought to myself, I'll try it and if it doesn't work for me I'll go back. I've never gone back.

In fact, Samantha has been using her standing desk for over two and a half years. Her average standing work session lasts three hours and she spends up to five hours a day standing.

Jennifer Mattern, who has used her standing desk since 2010, averages three to four hours a day standing, although she admits that:

I'm a bouncer. I go from chair to recliner to standing desk and back.

Jake Poinier also uses a standing desk when he's not sitting in his ergonomic chair. He invested in a new Ergotron WorkFit-A Sit-Stand Workstation adjustable arm to convert his traditional desk to a standing desk a year ago.

Finding the Right Alternative

Everyone I talked to had some challenges finding the right desk alternative. One obvious obstacle was cost. Standing desks and attachments range in price from several hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars.

If you don't have a big budget for furnishing your home office, you might feel that a standing desk is not for you. You might be able to build a standing desk. Two of the home office workers I interviewed did just that. Here's a look at their two homemade standing desks.


Samantha Gluck at her standing desk
Samantha Gluck at her standing desk.

Samantha Gluck uses an elevated table for her keyboard and a stack of books to hold her screen at a higher level. She measured and set it up for her height. She also made sure that the monitor was in her line of sight.

Jennifer Matterns DIY standing desk
Jennifer Mattern's DIY standing desk.

Jennifer Mattern built her standing desk using a storage cabinet. On top of the cabinet she placed a modular shelving unit with little legs to hold her laptop. To raise the laptop up even higher, she uses a scrapbooking box.

Both measured their workstation and adjusted it at heights that were comfortable for them. Jennifer explains:

The biggest difficulty for me was my height. I'm six feet tall. My friend had a standing desk that I couldn't use because I'm too tall for it. When I tested it [her desk] I realized it wouldn't work for me.
If you're making y our own standing desk, it's important to experiment to get the right height.

If you're going to work standing up, Jennifer also recommends:

A separate keyboard for your standing desk [as opposed to the keyboard that comes with the laptop]. My keyboard is a bluetooth keyboard so I can use it with a laptop or a tablet.

Jake Poinier and Jennifer Mattern both mentioned the importance of getting a mat to stand on so that your feet don't get tired.

Alternative Workstation Benefits

All three home workers agreed that there were benefits to a standing desk. Most felt that it was making a positive difference in their health. As Samantha Gluck stated:

I don't have back problems or fatigue from sitting any more.

Samantha also mentioned that:

I [now] have better mental clarity when I'm working. I focus more on my work and don't websurf at all.

Jennifer Mattern also mentioned that she focuses better standing up and she thinks she might know the reason why:

When you use a standing desk, I think there's a part of us that's lazy—that wants to finish what we're doing so we can sit down again.

Jake Poinier feels that his effectiveness at the standing desk varies depending on what type of work he's doing:

If I need to focus, I sit. If I'm researching, I stand.

Other home office environmental factors can also affect your productivity and health.

Your Home Office Environment

Your home office is more than just your chair, your monitor, or your workstation. To have a healthy home office set up, look at your whole working environment. Factors like the amount of light or noise in your office can also affect how you feel.

Lighting

According to How Lighting Affects the Productivity of Your Workers from Vivian Giang on the MBA@UNC (Masters of Business Administration University of North Carolina blog), lighting definitely affects productivity. The article points out that both the type and amount of light in an office space are important.

Exposure to outdoor light is important too. I worked indoors for years in an office with no window, so I know the difference a window can make. When I couldn't see a window from my workstation, I often lost track of time as I worked. I also felt more anxious and restless.

It turns out that studies back up my longing for a window. According to a Northwestern University study, workers who are exposed to natural light during the workday enjoy better health and a better quality of life.

When you choose a room in your home to work from, choose your light sources carefully. Also, give some thought to whether there's a window in the room.

Noise

You may already know that noise can distract you when you're trying to work. Did you know that too much noise is also bad for your health?

Very loud noises can damage your eardrums and even lead to partial deafness. Most of us probably don't face that type of noise in our home offices, but even lower level noise can be a problem. For example, living and working near a busy street can cause stress leading to heart disease, irritability, and even sleep problems.

Health problems due to noise are extremely common. According to the World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe:

Traffic noise alone is harmful to the health of almost every third person in the WHO European Region.

If your office is particularly noisy, take some steps to block the noise. Accoustic tiles and added insulation can help. Also soft furnishings such as carpeting, curtains, and upholstery help to absorb the noise.

Conclusion

A healthier office can help you feel better and get more done. Learning about potential health problems and what to do about them is the first step in creating a healthier home office workspace.

References

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