For the first two weeks, Kathryn Benjamin worked from her sofa. When hunching over her laptop started to hurt, the 34-year-old marketing manager moved to a high-top table wedged in the kitchen of her tiny London flat. She bought a bar stool to sit on.
In theory, that was better. But it turns out not having your feet touch the floor is “actually really uncomfortable,” Ms. Benjamin says. Her neck and back ached. In September, she gave in, finally ordering a proper desk and task chair for almost $400 and moving the bed belonging to her longhaired dachshund, Ralph, to make room.
“I think I was in denial,” she says. “I was sitting at a bar stool for six months.”
It’s been a long time since employers around the world abruptly sent their staff home, and workers are feeling it. What was once a creative workaround or show of resilience—plop a monitor on your ironing board, take a conference call in your car—has become an ergonomic nightmare.
Wrists tingling, feet sore, employees are now investing in everything from treadmill desks to special footstools in a bid for relief. Some companies are offering stipends for equipment and hosting virtual stretch and dance breaks. Underlying it all is an acknowledgment that we’re in this for the long haul, so we might as well try to get comfortable.
“We can all rally and push through for two, three months, no problem,” says Deborah Read, founder and president of Seattle-based ErgoFit Consulting, which advises companies on ergonomics. “Then it starts to get old.”
Left unchecked, ergonomic issues can lead to permanent pain, disability and an inability to work at all. Still, at the beginning of the pandemic, employers were understandably more concerned with pressing crises—keeping their businesses afloat, keeping workers safe from the virus—than the threat of aches and pains.
Demand for Ms. Read’s services has been climbing since late summer, she says, with companies seeking help for employees stationed in makeshift home offices, as well as for essential workers in fields like health care.
“They haven’t had much of a break,” she says. “They sacrifice their body for the sake of the work.”
Protective gear crucial to protecting essential workers from Covid-19 adds extra weight that can strain the neck, upper back and shoulders, she says. Those at home are often plunking down in broken chairs, using desks that are too shallow or even experiencing foot pain from walking around barefoot. Or worse, they’re just not getting up at all.
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“We need to get people moving,” says Brian McEnaney, an ergonomist at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based
whose 10,000 employees are set to work remotely until at least July. Before the pandemic, Mr. McEnaney’s team received requests for help from about 10 workers a week. That’s ballooned to more than 100. The technology company has rolled out online classes on recovery breaks—short midwork stretching sessions that focus on gentle motions and deep breathing—as well as “ergonomic open office hours,” where employees can drop in with questions and concerns.
Mr. McEnaney says you don’t need to get fancy to correct many problems. Simple hacks, like sitting on a pillow to raise your body, can help. He also implores workers to avoid rounding their spines and pushing their necks out, an injury-prone position he calls the Office Turtle. Back at the actual office, he used to employ a 6-foot cutout of a turtle to get his message across.
“They know me to be the turtle hunter,” he says.
Several workers I talked to admitted it was hard to stay vigilant about things like slouching and exercise routines amid the singular stress of 2020. Who can blame them? I myself spent most of election season slumped awkwardly in my office chair, stress-eating various carbohydrates while typing.
“I think I just have a posture problem,” says Monish Khara, a 25-year old graphic designer whose lower back started bothering him when he began working from his Manhattan apartment this spring. He dabbled in a special yoga workout meant to target his back, but couldn’t get himself to commit.
“I kind of just put up with it,” he says of the pain. “It was like, yeah this is life right now.”
That changed this fall when he spotted a LinkedIn post from Brian Collins, the chief creative officer and co-founder of a New York strategy and design consulting firm, announcing he was giving away 20 “insanely comfortable” high-end office chairs that normally retail for $675.
“I got 100 inquiries in like an hour. I was shocked,” says Mr. Collins, who’s reconfiguring his office for reduced capacity amid the pandemic. Young designers told Mr. Collins they were working on the edges of beds in studio apartments or finding their feet were swollen when they stood up from subpar seats. Many said they couldn’t afford to upgrade their bare-bones setup.
Mr. Khara was lucky enough to snag a free chair, shepherding it home in an Uber and carrying it up three flights of stairs to his apartment. He marvels at how it forces him to sit up straight.
Other workers are shelling out for expensive gear and gadgets, sometimes with help from their employers. Firms in industries like technology have been giving employees stipends of up to $2,000, says Ron Wiener, the CEO of iMovR, a Bellevue, Wash., manufacturer of active office furniture. The company’s monthly sales of standing desks have more than tripled since February.
“Treadmill desks we cannot keep in stock,” he says.
Adam Wolf, a co-founder and chief scientist of agriculture data startup Arable, has tried almost everything since the pandemic started: an old chair from college, an older chair upholstered in green velvet, a trip to the orthopedist. He purchased a standing desk and a $200-dollar competition-grade gymnastics mat. But the thing that helped most, he says, was simply admitting defeat and returning to the Princeton, N.J., co-working space he had frequented before the pandemic.
“It’s the most average IKEA chair,” he says of his setup there. But it helped ease the pain in his legs and glutes so much that he asked if he could buy one to take home. (Staff there said sure, charging him $25.)
There’s an extra benefit to the chair, he’s realized—especially on the days when he commutes to the co-working space. It just makes him feel like his old professional self.
“I’m in my work persona now,” he says. “And I don’t feel pain.”
Time to Get Comfortable
Ergonomics experts Deborah Read and Brian McEnaney offer these tips for avoiding common home-office layout pitfalls:
Survey your equipment: Ditch broken task chairs and backless stools. Avoid wooden kitchen chairs if you can. Aim for a desk that’s 30 to 36 inches deep and at least 3 feet wide.
Get moving: Every hour, spend at least a couple minutes stretching or walking around.
Watch your posture: Don’t round your back into the dangerous Office Turtle position that Mr. McEnaney warns against. Relax your shoulders and keep your elbows to your side.
Sit tall: Make sure your eyes are level with the top of your computer screen and you’re an arms length away from the monitor. If you need to raise yourself up, stack pillows on your chair and use a box or binders to fashion a makeshift footrest.
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