The secret life of work from home ergonomics

“Darn it, Carrie, you know better!”

That’s what ran through my mind the other day when I woke up with a very sore, stiff neck. As an office ergonomic consultant, I knew exactly why I had the problem, but I have to admit that when I was doing the thing that caused it, I was not thinking at all. I was just doing.

And here’s the reason why: it was because I was working from home.

For some reason, those sound ergonomic rules that we follow in the office can easily be ignored when we work from home, almost as if working at home isn’t really working.

And while I have everything I need to make an ergonomic workstation in my living room (a cozy spot near the fireplace and in front of the television), I didn’t use it to full advantage because I was only planning to work for a couple hours that evening. If I ever needed proof that just two hours in the wrong posture can result in days of pain and reduced movement, this experience did it.

What went wrong?

The first mistake I made was to work on my laptop without an external keyboard or monitor.

Due to the compact design of the laptop, the distance between the screen and the keyboard is far too little, making the neutral computing posture practically impossible to achieve without some sort of intervention. An external keyboard is the easiest way to intervene in a situation like this, but another possibility is to use an external monitor.

So using the keyboard of the laptop forces you to make a crucial ergonomic decision:

  • Should I place the laptop so that the top of the screen matches my eye level?
  • Or should I place the laptop so that the keyboard matches my elbow level?

Now if I had used the external keyboard, I could have placed my laptop higher, which would have lifted the screen to my eye level. Instead, I worked with my head bent down far past the acceptable angle.


The next thing I did wrong was to sit for more than two hours without taking a break.

That is particularly easy to do when working at home, if you are sitting in front of the television or even listening to the radio. You can forget that although your mind is enjoying the entertainment, your body is undergoing the stress of accomplishing a physical task. Not only that, but you many not be aware of how quickly time is passing, when you’re following a TV show storyline or listening to your favorite music.

TIP: Use the commercials breaks as rest time away from the computer: stretch, walk around, drink some water, etc. But don’t plant yourself in front of the computer for more than two hours at a time.

And in sitting there, I didn’t move.

When I watch TV, I sit in a comfortable easy chair. But working at the computer requires more support, so I usually place pillows at the small of my back, to remind me to maintain the natural “S” curve of the spine. Unfortunately, this time,  I was wearing a pair of old reading glasses which caused me to lean forward to see the computer screen.

As a result, my entire upper torso was put off balance. As I became engrossed in my work, my limbs froze into that terrible posture, and when I finally stood up, by hips and legs could barely move. At the time, my neck and shoulders felt fine−it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized how badly affected they were.

Lastly, I repeated this cycle multiple days.

Not one, not two, but three nights in a row, thinking that I would get a start on the next day’s work. Of course, what I ended up with was an increasingly stiff and painful neck which gradually spread across my shoulders and down my back until, by the fourth day, I was moved like a zombie.

I can’t say exactly what kind of hit this made in my work productivity, but I do know that going into the office with that much discomfort was not good way to start my work day.

And the worst part is, I KNEW BETTER!

If any of this sounds familiar, or you would like more information about ergonomic laptop use, I urge you to read my paper on comfortable computing, “Comfortable Portable Computing: The Ergonomic Equation.” It provides tips on how to create a more ergonomic working environment for your home, office, and even on the road. Find it and other ergonomic resources for home and office use at

We’ll be discussing home ergonomics today, Wednesday, October 6, from 1:30 to 2:30 (CS) on Twitter. Follow @giveafig (me) and @ergoheat, at hashtag #ergochat. Join the discussion. We’d love to hear from you.

Perhaps you’ll learn from my “doh!” and make your home computing, happy computing!

Carrie Schmitz, Office Ergonomics Consultant & Engineering Publications Manager @ Ergotron

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  1. Pingback: Home Office Ergonomics| Health-Fit Chiropractic & Sports Medicine

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