How to improve your working-from-home environment with some ergonomic changes
I’ve often thought about a standing desk and whether it would be a good idea for me. I’ve wondered how well it might work with all the stuff I had littering my work area and whether I would ever raise it up enough to warrant the expense. I had a perfectly good desk anyway and they were expensive so…
Everything changed when we lost our business last January and had to reinvent ourselves: part of that involved adjusting to working from home and a whole new way of life. We’ve written before about some of the changes that necessitated, but for me the biggest change has been that I now spend most of my day sitting at a table and it seems I move a lot less than I did in an office.
I’ve wondered about why this is: obviously there is no commute involved at either end of the day but that can be mitigated by going for a walk or a run. It seems that at home there are fewer distractions, for me anyhow, and I can go long periods where I will work without moving at all. In the office people will ask questions which distract you and can lead to errands, customers wander in, tea gets made, things are happening and you get involved. Whatever the reason, having worked from home for over 18 months now I am finding it a physical challenge.
I have had issues with my hip and knee hurting and recently my first ever bad back, one that took me down for two weeks. I’m a regular runner and consider myself reasonably fit, I walk everywhere and think nothing of a 10k round trip to the local shops on a weekend. And yet, here I am, creaking and stiff, sitting at a table.
So when one of our readers Kate wrote in to ask if we could recommend a standing desk adaptor I was intrigued. I hadn’t thought about adapting an existing desk and suddenly a standing desk was a possibility for me at home. I work at my dining room table with no option for fitting a desk anywhere, no spare room here sadly. Could this be a solution for my situation?
Having done some research I suggested to Kate that she consider the Cora, an adaptor made by Fully, a Belgian firm who specialise in ergonomic, people-centred office furniture. With the sudden rise in home working though the Cora was temporarily out of stock and so Kate ordered herself an Urbo, a rival product, slightly smaller in size. She promised to let me know how she got on with her new desk and I decided to approach Fully to see if they would be prepared to let me test one out which they did. So here are the results of how we both got on with our respective adaptors.
I have to say I was initially quite taken aback by the size and weight of the Cora. For some reason I hadn’t measured it and was expecting something smaller and lighter so when it arrived I was confused by how heavy the package was. Once out of the box it becomes clear that this is a well-constructed and solid piece of apparatus, which given it will hold your PC up is a good thing. It’s simple in design, a flat white (or black) surface measuring 80cm x 56cm with a spring-loaded release mechanism – when you press the side buttons it automatically rises. Lowering means applying pressure but it isn’t hard to do and the height range is from a nearly flat 3.4cm to 39.4cm which should cover the tallest of us. I am 5’4” or 163cm and using it at 29cm height.
I am using mine with a laptop, but it is easily big enough to hold a screen and keyboard. I asked my son, who has worked in IT, if he considered it stable enough to take a screen and he felt it was, though we both felt that key to that would be getting used to the rising and lowering mechanism: initially it can be a bit surprising and sudden but you quickly get used to operating it smoothly.
Lifting it on and off the table is for me the least attractive aspect as it is heavy: clearly it works best when permanently installed on a desk. However, the solidity is impressive with the metal underframe extending right to the edges and the protective pads preventing scratching of your table or desk. You’ll need to have somewhere to keep it as well if you are a table-worker like me, that is something I haven’t yet worked out.
So does it help? At the time of writing I have been using it for just over a week so early days. I would say it does though, I feel far less stiff when I’m working standing up and notice the difference between that and when I get up from sitting. I wondered if I would feel comfortable working whilst standing and whether I would end up not using it in the up position that often. The reverse has turned out to be true. I start the day sitting with my coffee and then up it goes for the morning. Down again for lunch, certainly easier to eat sitting than standing, then back up for the afternoon. I often have music playing in the background which also encourages movement, I find myself doing small and slightly strange movements in time to whatever is playing. Typing is just as easy standing up and I rather think I prefer it to sitting now. It’s a small thing but somehow it makes you more amenable to moving around, no longer having to make the move from seated with legs under the table. You are up already so…
But is standing all day good for you? Are we simply replacing one bad practise with another? I asked osteopath and nanosphere reader Melinda Cotton for her thoughts on best working practice.
“The standing desk has lots of benefits especially for the lower back, but if not set up well, the same problems coming from incorrect keyboard and screen height occur.
The benefit is one avoids slouching, there is less strain on the back, but for many not so young people, standing for hours comes with its own challenges. Variety is good for us all. I think being able to adapt to one’s needs is good. Keyboard positioning is the same whether we stand or sit. The same is true for monitor height. Taking time to get one’s desk well adjusted is just as vital when one has a standing desk.”
So, having ensured your set up is correct, the key would seem to be adjusting back and forth, probably more than I am currently doing. Harvard Health suggests you should “Keep in mind that using a standing desk is like any other “intervention” — it can come with “side effects.” For example, if you suddenly go from sitting all day to standing all day, you run the risk of developing back, leg, or foot pain; it’s better to ease into it by starting with 30 to 60 minutes a day and gradually increasing it”.
You can also get something called a balance board which is a curved base that you stand on and allows you to constantly adjust your position. I didn’t get one of these so can’t offer any thoughts on their effectiveness, but they do seem to have good reviews on the site.
And reader Kate – how did she get on? Kate has been using her Urbo desk for a few weeks now and says she loves it, describing it as a gamechanger for her. She does a lot of online consultations so she tends to stand for those and then sit for work requiring more concentration. The Urbo is lighter and also smaller at 60cm x 41cm than the Cora and sits a little higher on the desk when flat at 7.5cm. Perhaps an advantage of a larger desk adapter is that everything comes up together – notebook, coffee cup, pens etc – there is room for all. Then again, smaller is easier to store away.
Kate also wondered if it added to her energy usage – does standing burn more calories? The answer it seems is not really. According to the Journal of Activity and Physical Health standing burns around 88 calories/hour as opposed to 80 for sitting so you’ll still need to go for that walk at lunchtime to burn off the morning pastries.
You can find the Cora and the balance board here:
Cora standing desk – https://www.fully.com/en-gb/cora-standing-desk-converter.html
Balance board – https://www.fully.com/en-gb/tic-toc-stand-balance-board.html
Of course some of us don’t have a suitable place to put a standing desk or adaptor and are working in far less ideal conditions. If you want to try and improve your posture in one of these situations then Melinda has the following advice:
Stand up, Feel your lower back, you will feel it should dip in a little. Feel the back of your neck, your neck should dip in a little too. These gentle forwards curves of the neck and back are normal. When we sit these curves naturally change, often, flattening a little. When we sit badly at home, often these curves can become too flat or go the opposite way, putting huge strain on the spine.
Working on our laptop in bed
This is a far from ideal way to work and best avoided! Sitting in bed working on one’s laptop results in us curling our back into a big “c” shape, from our neck down to our low back. In this position our neck and low back are under a constant strain which eventually will result in pain and injury. Also the muscles at the front of your neck tend to shorten, pulling one’s neck forwards which contributes to bad posture neck posture.
If you have no alternative place to work in then you could reduce strain on your back and neck by:
- being less upright in bed, being in a more reclined position, with one or 2 pillows under your head and upper back
- support your low back by placing a rolled-up towel under your low back
- when in the above position, bend your hips and knees to 90 degree
- now place your laptop on your thighs , with the screen angled for your comfort.
Sitting on a dining room chair
Sometimes the dining room table is simply too high to work on comfortably for a long period of time. We often end up raising our shoulder in order for hands to reach the keyboard and type with ease. This contributes to neck and shoulder pain, and even tension headaches. Sitting on one or two cushions until your shoulders feel relaxed and your elbows are at 90 degrees is a great tip.
Often dining room chairs have a very straight back and can be uncomfortable to sit on for long periods. We can end up slouching just a little or sometimes quite badly. Putting a cushion behind your low back to offer some support can make the world of difference.
To take strain off your neck, use an external keyboard and then place your laptop on a pile of books
Sitting on the sofa
Sofas are designed as a place for us to relax not work! Sofas often have quite deep seats (front to back), they can be very soft and soggy and quite low. Sitting and working on the sofa is frequently a cause for back pain as the sofa offers little support, resulting in us badly slouching and vulnerable to back and neck pain. Looking down at your laptop when it is on your knees contributes to the slouched position that you need to avoid But we can improve things!
- Putting one or two cushions behind your back so that your low back is well supported
- Putting a couple of cushions on your knees will raise the height of your keyboard and screen taking much strain off our neck
General advice when working from home
Regularly get up and move around. Moving around helps to refresh our bodies so when we go back to work, we concentrate better and sit with more.
Try setting a timer in your phone to go off at least every hour as a cue to get up and move around.
Try a mini 5 mins exercise stretch routine in your break.
Drink plenty of water because then at least you will get up to go to the loo.
If you would like help with your home office set up then Melinda Cotton, Practice Principle at Fulham Osteopaths. offers virtual appointments to assess and give customised advice. Contact her at www.fulhamosteopaths.co.uk or on 020 7384 1851.