How to make your work environment work for you

Did you suddenly find yourself working from a cramped bedroom or kitchen table a year ago, as the pandemic changed working practices across the world? Employers’ duty of care has long protected many from the risks of a harmful physical working environment. But the scramble to set up new work-from-home stations almost overnight has left many working in woefully less-than-ideal situations.

For many fortunate enough to have work, life has become a round of endless video calls and blurred work-life boundaries, leading to even longer working hours. Some have thrived in their new circumstances, but many have found themselves sitting for hours staring at a poorly positioned screen in an ill-suited workspace, beginning to develop painful problems such as neck or eye strain.

Your career goals in mind, you may have been focusing hard on optimising the way you work – honing your professional skills, time management or productivity. But it’s all too easy to overlook the impact your current physical workspace and habits could have on your life for years to come. Feeling achy, strained, or sluggish because of a poor work environment can reduce your performance and job satisfaction. Ignoring signs of discomfort now may also lead to more serious long-term health issues.

That’s why it’s vital to evaluate your workspace and daily habits – and take action to improve them where you can. It might be tempting to put it off, but it could be key in helping you to avoid injury and enjoy a sustainable, satisfying work-life. Here is how.

Your physical environment

You can’t be productive when you’re in pain,’ says Dr Susan Hallbeck, president of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. Preventative steps are needed to avoid repetitive ‘microtraumas’ to our joints and muscles which can develop over time into soft tissue and bone injuries.

It’s therefore important to make sure that the essential elements of your physical working environment – desk, chair, lighting – are working for you and not against you.

  1. Desk

    Your screen needs to be at or just below eye level, an arm’s length away. If you work on a laptop, you’re likely to be looking down at a screen that’s too low and too close. An inexpensive way to fix this is to attach a second keyboard, allowing you to position your laptop at an appropriate height and distance.

    Next up, check your wrists. Whether you’re using a mouse or trackpad, this needs to be at the same height as the keyboard, with your forearms parallel to the floor. Resting your wrists flat on a hard desk surface may trigger carpal tunnel issues so use a wrist rest or folded towel for cushioning and comfort.
  1. Chair

    Your chair needs to be adjustable, with a back against which you can sit comfortably. When seated, your back should be straight, your shoulders relaxed and arms at a 90 degree angle. That could well mean upgrading any hard kitchen chair you’ve been using up to now. There are many options, but a chair with lumbar support and adjustable headrest, armrests and seat height could make a significant difference to the way you feel at the end of a working day.

    Don’t forget to minimise back strain by putting a footrest or box under your feet so your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  1. Lighting

    Along with your neck and back, your eyes are vulnerable to strain if you’re looking at a screen for hours at a time, especially in a poorly lit space. Check the lighting in your workspace, and adjust your monitor and screen settings. A low-glare, adjustable desk lamp will allow you to direct light where it’s most needed while you’re working. 

    Like the muscles in the rest of your body, your eyes need to move regularly. Try taking your eyes off your screen and focusing on something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. Yes, gazing out of a window can now legitimately be added to your to-do list.

Your daily habits

Alongside your physical workspace, the daily habits you may find yourself slipping into have significant power to affect your health and wellbeing. Now could be a good time to review and revise them.

Back-to-back video calls are draining. Try asking yourself, ‘Is this call necessary? Can the outcomes be achieved another way?’ and set a limit – on both the number of calls you join and the number of people you invite. One way to lighten the load may be to pick up the phone. You’ll be free to stand, walk and even change location as you talk.

Say no to sedentary work patterns. Even if you take regular exercise, sitting for extended periods each day is known to heighten the risk of conditions such as cardiovascular disease or stroke. Do whatever you can to bring movement into your working day – that could be a lunch-time run, a stretching session, a quick break for a household task, or even simply setting a prompt to stand up regularly.

When you’re absorbed in your work it’s also easy to forget to stay hydrated. By reducing your ability to concentrate, dehydration can make you less productive and therefore extend the time a task takes. Cut back on the amount of tea and coffee you drink and prioritise water instead. Make it easy and front of mind – keep a water bottle to hand or try a water reminder and tracker app.

Sugary snacks might seem like your friend when you sense your energy, mood or focus dipping. But resist the inevitable rush and crash by prepping better options in advance for that moment you need a quick boost. Nuts, hummus, energy bites – find an option that enhances rather than erodes your health.

Keeping a distinction between your work and home life can prove harder when you’re working from home and effectively living in your workspace. An end-of-working-day ritual – a good walk or a shower and a change of clothes – can give you space to transition and mark out the start of the rest of your day.

Take time now to check and change any potentially damaging elements of your workspace or practices. It should be a sound investment that yields tangible benefits for your work and life for years to come.

Further reading

How to work from home – comfortably

Five tips to create a healthy workspace at home from the University of Alberta

British Nutrition Foundation’s Healthy snacking

Looking for your next academic role?

Global Academy Jobs specialises in vacancies in the academic and research sector.

Read more

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

Global Academy Jobs Bulletin

The best career advice and a carefully curated selection of the top academic positions, straight to your inbox