Adapted from the upcoming book, Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Faass, (in press). Tech Stress: How Technology Is Hijacking Our Lives, Strategies for Coping, and Pragmatic Ergonomics. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.
Numerous people report that working at the computer at home is more tiring than working in the office. Although there are obvious advantages to working at home, there are also disadvantages (e.g., no space to work, challenging ergonomics, no escape from the family, lack of nonverbal cues used to communicate, less informal sharing at the water cooler, increased multitasking by working and having to take care of the children).
A major challenge is having a comfortable work space in your home. This may mean finding a place to put the computer, keyboard and screen. For some it is the kitchen table, desk in the corner of the bedroom, or coffee table while other it is in a totally separate room.
Incorrect ergonomic arrangement and stressed work style often increases neck, shoulder discomfort and aggravates eye strain and tiredness. Regardless how your digital work space is organized, implement the following life and work style suggestions and ergonomics recommendations to promote health.
LIFE AND WORK STYLE SUGGESTIONS
Take many, many, many breaks. Movement breaks will reduce the covert static tension that builds up as we sit in static positions and work at the computer.
- Every few minutes take a small break such as stand up and wiggle or role your shoulders. When performing the movements, stop looking at the screen and look around the room or out the window.
- Every 30 minutes get up walk around for and move your body. Use timers to notify you every 30 minutes to take a break (e.g., cellphone alarms or personal digital assistants such as Hey Google, Siri, or Alexa).
- Take vision breaks to reduce eye fatigue.
- Every few minutes look away from the screen and into the far distance and blink. If at all possible look outside at green plants which relaxes the near vision induced tension.
- Blink and blink again. When working at the computer we reduce our blinking rate. Thus, blink each time you click on a new link, finishing entering a column of numbers, etc.
- Close your eyes by letting the eye lids drop down as you also relax your jaw. Imagine a hook on top of your head which is pulling your head upward and at the same time drop your shoulders.
- Reduce glare and bright backgrounds
- Arrange your computer screen at 90 degrees to the brightest light source.
- Have a darker background behind you when participating in video conferencing (e.g., Zoom, Skype, GoToMeeting, WhatsApp, FaceTime). Your face will be visible.
- When stressed remember to breathe. As you inhale let your stomach expand as you exhale let the air flow out slowly.
- Stop watching and listening to the negative news (check the news no more than once a day). Watch positive and humorous movies.
- Get fresh air, go for a walk, and be in the sun
- Reconnect with friends and share positive experiences.
- Remind yourself, that this too shall pass.
ERGONOMIC RECOMMENDATIONS: MAKE THE WORLD YOURS
Good ergonomics means adapting the equipment and environment to you and not the other way around. Optimizes the arrangement of the chair, desk, keyboard, mouse, camera, screen and yourself as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Recommended arrangement for working at the computer.
Arrange the laptop
The laptop is challenging because if your hands are at the right height for data entry on the keyboard, then you must look down to see the screen. If the screen at the right height, then you have to raise your hands to reach the keyboard. There are two solutions for this challenge.
- Use an external keyboard and mouse, then raise the laptop so that the top of the screen is at eye level. Use a laptop stand or a stack of books to raise the lap top.
- Use an external monitor for display, then use the laptop as your keyboard.
If these solutions are not possible, take many, many, many breaks to reduce the neck and shoulder stress.
Arrange the computer workstation
- Adjust the chair so that your forearms can rest on the table without raising your shoulders. This may mean sitting on a pillow. If the chair is then too high and your legs dangle, create a foot stool on which you can rest your feet.
- Adjust the monitor so that the top of the screen is at eye level. If the monitor is too low, raise it by putting some books underneath it.
- If possible, alternate standing and sitting while working.
Ergonomic suggestions for working at the computer and laptop.
11 tips for working at home
How our digital world activates evolutionary response patterns.
How posture affects health
“Although I knew I slouched and often corrected myself, I never realized how often and how long I slouched until the vibratory posture feedback from the UpRight Go 2™ cued me to sit up (see Figure 1).” -Erik Peper
Figure 1. Wearing an UpRight Go 2™ to increase awareness of slouching and as a reminder to change position.
For thousands of years we sat and stood erect. In those earlier times, we looked down to identify specific plants or animal track and then looked up and around to search for possible food sources, identify friends, and avoid predators. The upright, not slouched posture body posture, is innate and optimizes body movement as illustrated in Figure 2 (for more information, see Gokhale, 2013).
Figure 2. The normal aligned spine of a toddler and the aligned posture of a man carrying a heavy load.
Being tall and erect allows the head to freely rotate. Head rotation is reduced when we look down at our cell phones, tablets or laptops (Harvey, Peper, Booiman, Heredia Cedillo, & Villagomez, 2018). Our digital world captures us as illustrated in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Captured by the screen with a head forward positions.
Looking down and focusing on the screen for long time periods is the opposite of what supported us to survive and thrive when we lived as hunters and gatherers. When we look down, we become more oblivious to our surroundings and unaware of the possible predators that would have been hunting us for food.
This slouched position increases back, neck, head and eye tension as well as affecting respiration and digestion (Devi, Lakshmi, & Devi, 2018; Peper, Lin, & Harvey, 2017). After looking at the screens for a long time, we may feel tired or exhausted and lack initiative to do something else. Our mood may turn more negative since it is easier to evoke hopeless, helpless and powerless thoughts and memories when looking down than when looking up (Wilson, & Peper, 2004; Peper, Lin, Harvey, & Perez, 2017). In the down position, our brain has to work harder to evoke positive thoughts and memories or perform cognitive tasks as compared to when the head is erect (Tsai, Peper, & Lin, 2016; Peper, Harvey, Mason, & Lin, 2018). By looking down and focusing at the screen, our eyes may begin to strain. To be able to see objects near us, the extraocular muscles of the eyes contract to converge the eyes and the cilia muscles around the lens contract to increase the curvature of the lens so that the reading material is in focus.
Become aware how nearby vision increases eye strain.
Hold your arm straight ahead of you at eye level with your thumb up. While focusing on your thumb, slowly bring your thumb closer and closer to your nose. Observe the increase in eyestrain as you bring your thumb closer to your nose.
Eyestrain tends to develop when we do not relax the eyes by periodically looking away from the screen. When we look at the horizon or trees in the far distance the ciliary muscles and the extraocular muscles relax (Schneider, 2016).
Head forward posture increases neck and back tension
When we look down and concentrate, our head moves significantly forward. The neck and back muscles have to work much harder to hold the head up when the neck is in this flexed position. As Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, Chief of Spine Surgery New York Spine Surgery & Rehabilitation Medicine reported, “The weight seen by the spine dramatically increases when flexing the head forward at varying degrees. An adult head weighs 10-12 pounds in the neutral position. As the head tilts forward the forces seen by the neck surges to 27 pounds at 15 degrees, 40 pounds at 30 degrees, 49 pounds at 45 degrees and 60 pounds at 60 degrees.” (Hansraj, 2014). Our head tends to tilt down when we look at the text, videos, emails, photos, or games and stay in this position for long time periods. We are captured by the digital display and are unaware of our tight overused neck and back muscles. Straightening up so that the back of the head is re-positioned over the spine and looking into the distance may help relax those muscles.
To reduce discomfort caused by slouching, we need to reintegrate our prehistoric life style pattern of alternating between looking down to being tall and looking at the distant scenery or across the room. The first step is awareness of knowing when slouching begins. Yet, we tend to be unaware until we experience discomfort or are reminded by others (e.g, “Don’t slouch! Sit up straight!”). If we could have immediate posture feedback when we begin to slouch, our awareness would increase and remind us to change our posture.
Posture feedback with UpRight Go
Simple posture feedback device such as an UpRight Go 2™ can provide vibratory feedback each time slouching starts as the neck as the head goes forward. The wearable feedback device consists of a small sensor that is attached to the back of the neck or back (see Figure 1). After being paired with a cellphone and calibrated for the upright position, the software algorithm detects changes in tilt and provides vibratory feedback each time the neck/back tilts forward.
In our initial exploration, employees, students and clients used the UpRight feedback devices at work, at school, at home, while driving, walking and other activities to identify situations that caused them to slouch. The most common triggers were:
- Ergonomic caused movement such as bring the head closer to the screen or looking down at their cell phone (for suggestions to improve ergonomics see recommendations at the end of the article)
- Negative self-critical/depressive thoughts
- Crossing the legs protectively, shallow breathing, and other factors
After having identified some of the factors that were associated with slouching, we compared the health outcome of students who used the device for a minimum for 15 minutes a day for four weeks as compared to a control group who did not use the device. The students who received the UpRight feedback were also encouraged to use the feedback to change their posture and behavior and implemented some of the following strategies.
- Head down when looking at their laptop, tablet or cellphone.
- Change the ergonomics such as using a laptop stand and an external keyboard so that they could be upright while looking at the screen.
- Take many movement breaks to interrupt the static tension.
- Feeling tired.
- Take a break or nap to regenerate.
- Do fun physical activity especially activities where you look upward to re-energize.
- Negative self-critical, powerless, self-critical and depressive thoughts and feelings.
- Reframe internal language to empowering thoughts.
- Change posture by wiggling and looking up to have a different point of view.
- Crossing the legs.
- Sit in power position and breathe diaphragmatically.
- Get up and do a few movements such as shoulder rolls, skipping, or arm swings.
- Other causes.
- Identify the trigger and explore strategies so that you can sit erect without effort.
- Wiggle, move and get up to interrupt static muscle tension.
- Stand up and look out of the window and the far distance while breathing slowly
Posture feedback improves health
After four weeks of using the feedback device and changing behavior, the treatment group reported significant improvements in physical and mental health as shown in Figure 4 & 5.
Figure 4. Using the posture feedback significantly improved the Physical Health and Mental Health Composite Scores for the treatment group as compared to the control group (reproduced from Mason, L., Joy, Peper, & Harvey, 2018).
Figure 5. Pre to post changes after using posture feedback (reproduced from Colombo, Joy, Mason, L., Peper, Harvey, & Booiman, 2017).
Slouched posture and head forward and down position usually occurs without awareness and often results in long-term discomfort. We recommend that practitioners integrate wearable biofeedback devices to facilitate home practice especially for people with neck, shoulder, back and eye discomfort as well as for those with low energy and depression (Mason et al., 2018). We observed that a small wearable posture feedback device helped participants improve posture and decreased symptoms. The vibratory posture feedback provided the person with the opportunity to identify the triggers associated with slouching and the option to change their posture, behavior and environment.
As one participant reported, “I have been using the Upright device for a few weeks now. I mostly use the device while studying at my desk and during class. I have found that it helps me stay focused at my desk for longer time. Knowing there is something monitoring my posture helps to keep me sitting longer because I want to see how long I can keep an upright posture. While studying, I have found whenever I become frustrated, tired, or when my mind begins to wander I slouch. The Upright then vibrates and I become aware of these feelings and thoughts, and can quickly correct them. This device has improved my posture, created awareness, and increased my overall study time.”
Suggestions to reduce slouching and improve ergonomics
How to arrange your computer and laptop: https://peperperspective.com/2014/09/30/cartoon-ergonomics-for-working-at-the-computer-and-laptop/
Relieve neck and shoulder stiffness: https://peperperspective.com/2019/05/21/relieve-and-prevent-neck-stiffness-and-pain/
Colombo, S., Joy, M., Mason, L., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Booiman, A. (2017). Posture Change Feedback Training and its Effect on Health. Poster presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Chicago, IL March, 2017. Abstract published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.42(2), 147.
Devi, R. R., Lakshmi, V.V., & Devi, M.G. (2018). Prevalence of discomfort and visual strain due to the use of laptops among college going students in Hyderabad. Journal of Scientific Research & Reports, 20(4), 1-5.
Harvey, R., Peper, E., Booiman, A., Heredia Cedillo, A., & Villagomez, E. (2018). The effect of head and neck position on head rotation, cervical muscle tension and symptoms. Biofeedback. 46(3), 65–71.
Mason, L., Joy, M., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2018).Wearable Posture Feedback Training: Effects on Health. Poster presented at the 2018 meeting of the 49th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Orlando, FL. April 11-14.
Mason, L., Joy, M., Colombo, S., Peper, E., & Harvey, R. (2017). Biofeedback Strategies to Increase Social Justice and Health Equity: A wearable device to teach awareness of posture and improve self-care. Presented at the 19th Annual meeting of the Biofeedback Federation of Europe, Aveiro, Portugal, April 24-29th, 2017. Abstract in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback,43(1), 93