Your work setup has a big impact on your physical and mental wellbeing, and there’s a lot more to it than having a good desk and chair. Now, with many more of us working from anywhere, we need to transfer the principles of office ergonomics to wherever we choose to work. Where you work in your home, whether you can work interruption-free, the support you receive from supervisors, access to social time with colleagues and so much more has flow-on effects for stress, productivity and overall health. 

“Ergonomics is the relationship between the person and the work set-up,” explains occupational health and musculoskeletal physiotherapist Deb Sutherland from the Australian Physiotherapy Association. “When we look at the ergonomics of working from home and what keeps us healthy, we really need to look beyond the physical workstation.”

It’s time to unpack what home office ergonomics really means and reveal how adhering to its principles in your working-from-home space can improve your wellbeing. 

What Is Ergonomics When Working From Home?

Ergonomic principles extend to stretching exercises and the temperature of a room.

Ergonomics comprises three main areas, explains Deb. “It's the physical, organisational and psychosocial factors, and how they interact,” she says. The first, physical factors, is the one most people are familiar with. That is, your workstation setup, the temperature of the room, the amount of natural light it gets, and how often you stretch or get up from your desk to take a walk. Then there are psychosocial aspects, which are made up of things like your personality, mental wellbeing, demands outside work and how you feel about your job.  

Lastly, there’s the organisational side of ergonomic principles – the scope of your role, your manager’s expectations of your time and the degree of control you have over your calendar. “Organisational relationships are really important,” says associate professor Jodi Oakman, head of the Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors at La Trobe University. “They influence the workload you have, the deadlines and your hours of work.”

Home office ergonomics is the relationship between all three areas. “When we look at working from home and ergonomics, it's in a broad context of physical, organisational and psychosocial factors interacting with the individual workplace factors,” Deb explains. 

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The Home Office Ergonomics and Wellbeing Connection

Wherever you set up your working from home space, think about all aspects of ergonomic design.

With regards to ergonomic design, everything is connected, so upsetting the overall balance can lead to physical and psychological stress, which in turn affects your wellbeing. “If you have a poor match between your physical factors, organisational factors and psychosocial factors and that load is too high, it can increase the risk of mental health problems and physical health issues,” Deb says.

Neck pain, for example, is an obvious physical consequence of a poor workstation set-up, but it might not be cured simply by investing in an ergonomic office chair. That kind of physical pain can also be caused by stress stemming from an unsupportive manager or lack of clarity around your tasks. “When we have poor organisational factors, this can cause a stress reaction,” Jodi says. “That either presents as physical stress, like neck pain, or it presents as anxiety where we feel overwhelmed.” 

Likewise with sedentary time. Spending too much time at your desk is a well-known risk factor for inflammation and chronic conditions like obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But there is another risk: too much sitting time is also associated with poor mental health. A landmark 2020 Swedish study that examined data from more than 40,000 workers found higher amounts of sedentary time increased the likelihood of depression and anxiety. 

Pandemic-related research shows working from home increased the difficulty in separating work from leisure. A Productivity Commission report found working from home may mean you clock on for longer – a phenomenon Jodi refers to as ‘work extensivication’. “The evidence is becoming really clear that a dedicated workspace at home is important,” she says. 

Ergonomic Principles and Your Home Office

Scheduling social chats with colleagues is important when creating an ergonomic office environment.

The good news is that creating a routine promoting ergonomic wellbeing when you’re working from home isn’t as difficult as you might imagine – and the payoffs are impressive. 

As well as using ergonomic design to set up a corner of your lounge room or perhaps creating a dedicated home office relatively free from interruptions, aim to build strong relationships with managers, colleagues and clients to help manage expectations and demands on your time and workload. “There's a lot of evidence to suggest you'll have reduced incidence of some physical injuries and mental health issues with better support in the workplace,” Deb says. 

She says scheduling social time with colleagues can be an effective mood-booster. “Take time with your work colleagues where you can actually chat,” she says. “Because we don't have those chance meetings anymore, some form of distraction from work is a good idea. At lunchtime, go for a walk around the block and phone your colleagues to see how they're going.”

Of course, a comfortable workspace with an ergonomic office chair that supports your spinal curves, a good-sized, adjustable desk, well-positioned monitor and adequate natural light are just as important as ever. 

The key, Deb says, is addressing each of the three ergonomic factors rather than just one in isolation. “The research indicates that changing single ergonomic factors, like your screen height or mouse, is less likely to be effective on your health and wellbeing than interventions based on all three factors – organisational, psychosocial and physical. We really need the combination of all three.”

What To Try

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