What is ergonomics?

Posted on Thursday, March 18, 2021

Person sitting at a desk

It has been a year since the WHO officially declared a pandemic and we were confined to home for our studies. While the challenges of working from home have been discussed at length, especially with respect to time management and isolation, there is another aspect that can critically improve your health, as well as your success, when learning remotely. Welcome to the field of ergonomics!

What is ergonomics?

Merriam Webster defines this field as “an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely.” We often don’t think of this when studying online because we tend to do things in a way we find most convenient, without considering how using our home computers ineffectively could be affecting our bodies. Here are a few tips we learned from uOttawa’s own ergonomics expert, Pauline Boris, to help you succeed in online learning.

The main constraint of remote learning ergonomics is that most of us are simply not set up at home to experience online classes in a healthy and productive way. Not everyone has a comfortable, ergonomic chair or desk to work at. Most of all, students tend to work on laptops, which were never meant for prolonged use in the first place.

Here are three ways to ensure that your work or study set-up at home is a productive one that fosters healthy habits.

Step 1: Make sure your posture and desk position are correct

You should be sitting at your desk with your arms in a neutral and relaxed posture. This means making sure that the flat surface where your keyboard and mouse are placed is at elbow level. If you have an adjustable chair, you should raise or lower it until you reach that point, even if your feet are dangling (we’ll get to that part later).

Unfortunately, using a laptop makes sitting in this ideal desk posture impossible because the laptop’s keyboard is attached to its screen, which means you cannot achieve the correct arm, back, and neck positions. Ideally, your screen should be at eye level and your neck should be in line with your shoulders, with your back straight. We recommended that you use remote peripherals, such as a separate mouse and keyboard, placed at elbow level and then prop up your laptop, using books, a box, or a laptop stand, so that you can comfortably view the screen.

Your orientation to the outdoors is important as well. Ideally, you’ll want to place your work station sideways to a window to reduce glare on your screen: if you have your back to a window, your screen will reflect glare from the outdoors, which could cause eye strain and force you to arch your back to see properly. Similarly, if you are facing a window, the glare will be in your eyes instead, leading to a similar result.

Step 2: Make sure your feet and back are properly supported

Your muscles need proper support to reduce strain and fatigue. If you’ve followed the previous step, your arms should be comfortably resting on your desk. Even if your chair doesn’t have good armrests, the right arm position with respect to your keyboard should help. Make sure to pull up closer to the table or desk so that it supports your arms.

If you needed to raise your chair and your feet are now dangling, place something that fits under them to support them, such as a  pile of books, a box, a suitcase, a stool, or anything else that works for you.

And finally, remember to pay attention to your back. Most of us work from chairs with a backrest, yet many people don’t seem to use it. We tend to arch our backs by leaning forward to reach our keyboards or to see our screens better. Make sure your back is straight and you feel well supported from lower to upper back. If your chair is straight without much support, try inserting a pillow or rolled-up towel against which you can rest your lower back.

Step 3: Make taking healthy breaks a habit

Zoom fatigue is real!

Even though laptops can lead to poor posture, they do offer their own advantages: their portability allows you to move around and create your own workspace. Try working or studying while standing at a kitchen counter, or find a better surface in your home that is level with your elbows.

On the topic of moving around, we don’t tend to move that much when working from home over longer periods of time. After you’ve been sitting at your computer for about 25 minutes, try to get up and move around for 5 minutes. Take a quick walk, get some water, do anything you can to remove your body from just sitting there. It’s also important to take your eyes away from the screen from time to time. Try the 20/20/20 rule: for every 20 minutes of screen time, try to look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

These habits will help you stay focused and fresh so you can meet those project deadlines and learn efficiently, even at home. 

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