How to survive and thrive in your new at-home work station

For a lot of people working from home right now, the home office has been cobbled together out of necessity. For most, it’s not the least bit ergonomic.

Sudden shift to home office can be a pain in the neck when therapists aren't available

Annie Barnwell says most people aren't set up to work comfortably from home, but a few simple tips can help. (Submitted by Annie Barnwell)

For a lot of people working from home right now, the home office has been cobbled together out of necessity. For most, it's not the least bit ergonomic.

But with chiropractors and massage therapists shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, ergonomist Annie Barnwell says it's important for people to make sure they're set up properly.

"People are in a little bit of a panic mode. They're starting to feel a lot of discomfort in their shoulders, upper back, neck, lower back," Barnwell told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"And physios, chiros and massage therapy clinics are all closed. So, prevention really is important, that people are trying to prioritize office ergonomics a little bit better."

One common problem, Barnwell says, stems from working on a laptop.

"Most people will stay home with laptop and laptops alone, so that's really the best way to suffer," said Barnwell, who has previously provided ergonomic assessments to CBC Calgary staff.

She suggests separating the laptop screen from the laptop keyboard.

"By buying an external keyboard or mouse, or just using one that you already have at home, and then raising that laptop so you can look at it with from your seated eye height and type by your seated elbow height."

Annie Barnwell is a senior ergonomist with EWI Works in Calgary. (Submitted by Annie Barnwell)

Last week, the Calgary Eyeopener asked listeners to send in photos of their home office spaces, and the results were … alarming.

Barnwell offered some tips.

Calgary Eyeopener food guide Julie van Rosendaal snapped a photo of her work set-up:

In this image, Barnwell points out that Julie is definitely working from the dining room table, in a photo that shows both a cookie sheet and pile of laundry in the workspace.

"She's got a big high dose of reality on this image. There's a lot of fun going on," Barnwell said.

"So with Julie, she does have an external mouse, which is great. Looks like she's got an external monitor, as well, and looks like she's sharing a screen with the laptop.

"I'd recommend that Julie raise her laptop to the same [level] as her monitor as well and add in a keyboard. I can't tell if she's using a separate keyboard or not."

Barnwell says the problems start with not planning out a home office — most people don't have desks, chairs and other equipment to help set themselves up in the first place.

Barnwell shares some play-by-play examples of how to set yourself up at the dining room table in a video she posted to YouTube, called Safely Using Your Laptop from Home — The Dining Room Edition.

To begin with, you want to give yourself really good foot support.

"Ideally, your feet will be flat on the floor, really well supported with your knees and hips at about 90-degree angles in the space," she said, adding that you can use textbooks or blocks to help support your feet to achieve the right angle.

The next step is lower back support.

"Dining room chairs don't have a lot of back support," she said. "So, a rolled up hand towel, and placing that in the deepest part of your back will support your lumbar spine a little bit better."

If you're working on a laptop, you can raise it up to avoid neck strain.

"You might notice that if you're looking at a laptop screen, your neck is going to get pushed down into an awkward posture, so being able to raise the screen up a little bit, will go a long way to help."

She recommends a laptop lifter or the poor man's version, a large, three-ring binder, to lift the screen at an angle.

"The angle brings the screen closer to your eyes. So it's not perfect, but your shoulders raise up a little bit. That will certainly help."

"Even better is being able to separate the laptop screen from the keyboard," she said, adding that you can use anything — a box, a crate or what you have on hand — to bring the screen up to your eye height.

"And then, an external mouse and keyboard. This will allow me to type at my seated elbow height, and look at my screen."

For a more personalized breakdown of your own workplace, Barnwell recommends downloading a free office workstation app like ErgoOffice, available on the EWIworks site, or Googling for any of the free workstation apps out there.

"That's a good place to start."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


Pamela Fieber

Former CBC digital journalist

Pamela Fieber worked for CBC Calgary's digital team from 2019 to 2021. She also worked for more the 10 years at the Calgary Herald. She also served as managing editor of WestJet Magazine before joining CBC Calgary in 2019.