Ergonomics and Remote Worker Behavioral Health

Todd Meier


August 19, 2021

Woman sitting at desk in home office facing multiple computers and massaging her shoulder and back in pain.

Employers are facing a number of leadership challenges regarding today’s changing workforce. With more Americans working remotely, the pandemic has redefined the workplace and worker expectations. It has also highlighted physical and mental health considerations that deserve continued attention from employers as the pandemic eases and fully or partial remote work models become more prevalent.

Never before has there been more awareness and discussion of behavioral health issues in the workplace, and yet mental health struggles in workers persist. According to a study conducted by Versta Research on behalf of The Standard, nearly half (46%) of full-time workers in the United States are suffering from mental health issues, up from 39% before the pandemic. At the same time, there has also been a notable uptick in musculoskeletal issues in those working remotely for over a year with limited or insufficient workspace. With so many impacts to workers today, it is important for employers to adopt a more holistic approach to their workforce’s overall health and wellbeing.

Before the pandemic, the majority of U.S. workers did not have proper remote work setups at home. Today, remote employees are working from spaces filled with discomfort as well as distraction, with dining room tables, bedrooms and kitchen countertops serving as workstations not designed for the 40-hour work week. Without proper ergonomic setups in their remote offices, workers have a greater risk for comorbidity, or co-occurring mental and physical conditions, often associated with worse health outcomes, complex treatments and extended leaves of absence.

The Importance of a Neutral Position

The benefits of a neutral working posture cannot be overstated. When employees, remote or otherwise, sit in front of a monitor for an extended period of time, it is important for them to keep the body at a slightly more than 90-degree angle to promote proper circulation in the lower extremities and relieve pressure from lower discs in the lumbar region when seated. There are several easy and low-cost ways that remote workers can accomplish this:

  • Position computer monitors at an appropriate angle and height so that the neck is facing straight ahead. Employees can purchase an inexpensive riser or simply use a stack of books or other household items to achieve this. To further keep from bending the head forward, which is a common cause of strain and fatigue in the neck and shoulders, workers can try using a reclining workstation or sitting in a chair that allows them to lean into the backrest.
  • Propping the feet up when seated by using a box, suitcase, footstool or similar item
  • Placing a pillow or rolled-up towel behind the back for support
  • Positioning elbows level with or slightly higher than the keyboard
  • For greater flexibility and to mitigate static postures, workers should try using a chair without armrests.

Dynamic Movement and Taking Breaks

Workers should be encouraged to get up and move regularly by standing during phone calls or taking short breaks to walk around the room. It is also a good practice to look away from the laptop or computer monitor every 20-30 minutes and rest the eyes on something in the distance to help prevent eye strain. Employers should also consider benefits programs that include ergonomic accommodations for workers such as standing desks and filtered eyeglasses.

For more tips and information, there are a number of helpful ergonomic tools and resources that employers can share with employees, like video tutorials and self-help guides. These can be found through a simple Google search, or made available through an employer’s dedicated disability consultant.

Eliminating Distractions

Workers are additionally experiencing an array of distractions in the remote environment, whether it be a partner, roommate, children or the next-door neighbor cutting the lawn, and this can negatively impact productivity and mental health. Remote ergonomic sessions make it possible for neutral third-party specialists to host virtual assessments and help talk through their unique challenges and brainstorm solutions and accommodations. For example, third parties can provide counseling and tips on how to adapt workspaces, as well as sound abatement strategies to help workers concentrate through the use of noise cancelling headphones and makeshift privacy walls.

A Whole-Person Approach to Behavioral Health

Establishing trust and communication with employees is critical in today’s workplace.

Employees also need to know that their managers and workplaces can support them if their personal struggles are impacting their productivity. Showing empathy and taking the time to understand each individual’s unique set of circumstances are critical to taking a proactive, whole-person approach to improving behavioral health and disability management. Employers should err on the side of over-communication in terms of making benefits and resources available to their workforce. 

Help is available for employers seeking advice, bandwidth and expertise. Employers can lean on and partner closely with programs designed specifically to help struggling employees stay at work or return to work sooner, reducing claims and extended leaves of absence.

It is impossible to separate employees’ mental health needs from their physical needs. For a productive, loyal and happy workforce, it will take that holistic approach to better serve and support the people who keep our organizations and economy going.

Todd Meier is a disability and productivity consultant at The Standard.