Ow, My Arm: Ergonomic Tips for the WFH Worker
When you spend as much time in front of a computer as I do, little changes can make a big difference to your health and comfort. And suddenly, all that butt-in-chair time is happening in our thrown-together work-from-home setups instead of our “real” desks at work—opening us up to real health risks and, if nothing else, a lot of soreness.
I’ve picked up some layperson’s knowledge over the years, first and foremost because I started to develop some serious pain and was able to fix it. I am not an ergonomic expert and certainly not a doctor, so there’s a good chance I’m getting some of the details wrong.
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome / Repetitive Strain Injury. There’s a tiny passageway in your wrist through which a bunch of tendons and a nerve pass. Typing and mousing in a suboptimal position can cause those tendons to become inflamed, compressing the nerve and causing pain, numbness, and tingling.
- Neck and back problems. Sitting in an unhealthy position for too long can result in strain on your neck and back.
- Eye strain. I don’t know as much about this one. If your eyewear prescription is out of date, get it checked. If you’re over 40 and things are getting harder to see up close, well, that’s sad for you but expected, and you may need reading glasses. Think about the distance between your head and your display.
A Better Workstation Setup
- Sit comfortably, with your chair at a height that lets you rest your feet flat on the floor. Sit somewhere between straight up and leaning back just slightly, with the chair back supporting you. When you’re typing, your elbows should be hanging down at your sides and bent at a 90–110 degree angle. Here are some diagrams from a literally old-school website.
- Take the armrests off your chair if you can. Resting your arms on the armrests while typing can contribute to irritation of those tendons. (I have removed the armrests from multiple chairs at work. I think my colleagues just think I’m eccentric. I’m OK with that.)
- Your keyboard should lie flat or angle slightly away from you. The goal is to keep your wrists straight while your type. They shouldn’t be bent up, or down.
- On a regular, non-ergonomic keyboard, you’re stressing your wrists along two axes. To see what I mean (and see my crude diagram at left), start with your hands out flat in front of you as though you were resting them on a keyboard. First axis: angle your hands toward each other horizontally so your fingertips get closer together. Second axis: rotate your arms so your thumbs come up and away from each other. You should feel more comfortable. This is why ergonomic keyboards have that angled split (first axis) and tent shape (second axis).
- Your display should be adjusted to avoid neck strain — far enough away that you can take it in without craning your neck too much, with the top edge roughly at eye level when you’re sitting up straight.
A whole fancy office setup gets expensive, so be creative and think about the variables. Success exists in the relationship between your feet and the seat of your chair, the seat of your chair and your keyboard, and the seat of your chair and your monitor. You can achieve those relationships in a variety of ways:
- External monitor. This is a great idea. Ergonomic considerations aside, more screen space means more productivity (source: stuff I read somewhere). If you’re willing to spend more for a high-resolution 4K display, Wirecutter recommends (and I use) the HP Z27 ($540). If you’re OK with something lower-res, Wirecutter has recommendations from $124 on up. If you don’t get an external monitor, you’ll definitely want a separate keyboard and a laptop stand — there’s no way to create an ergonomic setup with just your laptop.
- Ergonomic keyboard. Wirecutter likes the Microsoft Sculpt at $66-$80. The only drawback is that it has a built-in wrist rest — avoid using that as it puts pressure on your forearms. Also avoid getting one with a numeric keypad, because it forces your mouse hand too far our from your body. If you buy a Windows keyboard and use a Mac, you’ll need to remap the modifier keys or you’ll go crazy. It’s easy to do: System Preferences > Keyboard > Modifier Keys.
- External mouse. Trackpads are brutal on the hand in my experience. Wirecutter likes this one from Logitech ($40). I prefer this other Logitech at $99, which I think has a more ergonomic angle(?). If you’re already having mouse-related pain, try an explicitly ergonomic mouse.
- Office chair. You don’t necessarily need a fancy Aeron thing — a $120 IKEA chair served me well for almost a decade. The important thing is that it have appropriate height and back adjustments and be comfortable. Colleagues have recommended the IKEA Markus at $229, and this one for $99 if you’re shorter than 5’8”. Some have also had luck with Aeron chairs on Craigslist. If you’re willing to spend $600ish, Wirecutter recommends the Herman Miller Sayl chair at $550ish, which is still less than half the price of a new Aeron.
- Desk: Something with adjustable height is nice. Again, IKEA is your friend: I have something like this $99 one (which is adjustable but not easily). I haven’t gotten into standing setups and don’t know much about them, but a sit-stand desk sounds worthwhile. IKEA has one for $239 that you crank up and down, or an electric one for $599.
- Laptop stand: If you’re not getting an external monitor, get a laptop stand to raise it up high enough to serve as a properly-placed display. You might need to put it on some books or something, too.
- Keyboard drawer: These seem to have fallen out of fashion and you probably don’t need one. Unless you can’t get your desk low enough to put your keyboard at the right height.
- If you’re already having forearm pain, ice and ibuprofen.
- Take breaks from time to time. Stand up. Stretch. There’s software to help you remind yourself. There’s probably an Alexa skill.
- Take regular forearm breaks where you “rest and roll”, especially if you don’t have an ergonomic keyboard. Basically, rotate your arms as described above to put them in a resting position for a moment.
- Take stock of your posture from time to time. Do you lean forward and squint at your monitor? (I do.) Do you start to slouch, or hunch over? Be aware so you can correct.