Working at home has many advantages for the self-employed – the five-second commute from bedroom to laptop, the relaxed dress code (pyjamas acceptable), the cheap lunch, to name but a few. We also consider it a fairly hazard-free workplace (not that offices tend to be a death-trap anyway.) But whereas office workstations tend to be set up with the desk-bound employee in mind, spending a lot of time on your sofa with your laptop actually on your lap can give you a lot more than just toasty kneecaps.
I make a point of having a monthly massage, which was originally intended to be relaxing, but now more often than not is a wince-inducing pounding of my shoulders and neck. Even though I don’t feel tense or stressed that I’m aware of, I’ve been reliably informed by many a therapist that my neck and shoulders are a knotted mess (ow), most likely as a result of too many hours hunched over my laptop, with the occasional neck twist to see who Judge Judy is shouting at on the telly.
So my New Year’s Resolution is to be a bit more health-conscious when it comes to home working, and here are some tips, tools and techniques to help you to do the same – after all, if we self-employed types don’t take responsibility for our own health and safety at work, who will?!
- Set up your workstation. This means a desk or table, not your lap (otherwise you’ll have overheated, dry skin on your knees after a while.) Make sure you don’t have your back to a spotlight, or are in any other position where lighting causes a glare or reflection on your screen, or you’ll be getting headaches. It can be helpful to keep overhead lights dimmed and use a desk lamp for close work.The screen should be in front of you, not off to one side.
- Get the height right! The height of your screen, keyboard, desk etc. can all have a direct bearing on potential eye and neck strain. The top of your screen should be at or slightly below your eye level, and your work surface at elbow level. Use a document holder so you’re not looking from your desk to your screen and back like a Wimbledon final.
- Get an adjustable chair rather than just using a kitchen or dining chair, and make sure the height, arm rests, back angle etc. are at the right settings for you. Your chair should have some sort of lumbar support for your lower back – if not, use a pillow or a back rest. If you’re hunching your shoulders as you type, your chair probably isn’t high enough. They can be pricey (chairs, not shoulders), so if you’re on post-Christmas austerity measures, try eBay or Freecycle etc. for a bargain!
- Use a proper mouse and keyboard – you can get wireless or USB ones that you can use with your laptop. If you’re spending long periods at your screen, these are better for you than the teeny inbuilt ones on your laptop. Use a wrist rest for added comfort.
- What is under your table? Your legs shouldn’t be fighting for space with your printer, shredder, waste paper bin, trailing wires, dog, handbag, several pairs of shoes etc. Have a clear out and if, like me, you’re a shortie whose feet don’t reach flat to the ground, use a foot rest (easier than sawing a couple of inches off your table legs.)
- Take a break. This should be easy to do at home, given the distractions of the fridge, TV, cat, kids etc.! The rule is a micro-break (10 seconds or so) every 4 minutes, and a 10 minute break every hour. (It is easy to be so ‘in the zone’ that you forget, so you might want to try some break reminder software such as Cheqsoft.) Remember to stretch and change position regularly to help to reduce tiredness and prevent pains in your hands, wrists, arms, neck, shoulders or back. Every so often you should look away from the screen, preferably at a far off object or your 2013 Chippendales calendar, to relax your eyes.
- Clear your workspace of clutter. It is tempting to have a houseplant, photos of your granny, a lucky gonk and half a dozen empty coffee mugs scattered round your desk space, but reaching over and around unnecessary clutter can be a hazard, a distraction, and an obstacle. You should also leave plenty of room to arrange the items you use most frequently in such a way that you can reach them without straining yourself.
- Leave the phone alone. Great as we are at multitasking, clamping your phone between your neck and shoulder as you type can create a great deal of strain in your neck muscles. If you need to have your hands free, try using a headset or put the call on speakerphone. I use my iPod earphones with my mobile and just leave the phone on the desk next to me – it usually picks up my voice perfectly well even from a couple of feet away.
Finally, don’t forget to have regular eye checks, especially if you are getting headaches – it could be that you need a separate specs prescription purely for working with a VDU. So with a bit of thought and self-discipline, you can avoid all those nasties like RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome, work-related upper limb disorders, headaches, neck cricks and massage therapists’ elbows being jammed into your shoulder muscles!
If you have any tips for getting comfortable with success – let us know in the comments below!