Jan. 5, 2021

5 ways to make study and work environments healthier

Simple, actionable changes to consider as we continue remote learning and working for rest of pandemic

New year, same space? As we return to another semester or get back to work after the holiday break, many of us return to our home work and learning environments without a second thought. However, the way these spaces are set up and used can make a significant impact on our health.

While it’s unlikely we can replicate our on-campus environments, there are small improvements to consider in order to look after our bodies and make the best of a unique remote experience comfortable, and conducive to learning and working with well-being in mind.

  • Photo above by Nathana Rebouca, Unsplash

1. Set up furniture and equipment as best you can

Feet, back, hands, and head — in neutral postures, these four areas can dramatically reduce risk of injury. Whether you're equipped with a desk and monitor or using a laptop and personal furniture, you can pick and choose different solutions to create the most optimal environment for you.

  • Feet: If possible, your feet should be fully supported on the floor or with a footrest. This prevents pressure on the backs of your legs, improves blood flow, and helps to keep your lumbar spine in a neutral position. Hips and knees are ideally aligned at the same height so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Try not to sit too low or too high so that your knees are positioned at or slightly lower than the hips.
  • Back: Ideally, the chair you sit in for the majority of your day should fully support your back. If you don’t have a chair that supports your lumbar spine, consider placing a rolled up towel, paper towel roll or small pillow at that curved part of your low back.
  • Head: Whether you’re operating with a single screen or dual monitor, try to have them located 18 to 36 inches away (or the length of a fully extended arm) to assist with vision and proper neck posture. If possible, align the top of the screen with your eye height so that you aren’t looking down or up. This allows your neck to be in a neutral position. If you’re using a laptop, consider purchasing a laptop riser or use a binder, box, or books.
  • Hands:Try as best you can to have your elbow at a right or 90 degree angle, with forearms parallel to the floor and wrists straight, in part so your shoulders can relax away from the neck. Your keyboard and mouse should be as close to each other as possible, to avoid too much reaching. If you’re working with a laptop, purchasing an external keyboard and mouse can go a long way. Some students and staff also appreciate having a second screen or monitor to help them work and study.  
Workstation setup summary, courtesy of EWI Works

Workstation setup summary, courtesy of EWI Works

2. Try to mimic a normal school or work day

With the necessity to work from home, walking has dramatically decreased — whether steps taken commuting to work and school or walking between classes and meetings. It’s important to try and mimic pre-pandemic routines as much as possible, such as start and end times, lunch breaks, and transition time from work and ‘"home." 

“Pre-pandemic we used to have to walk to meetings or classes," says Jennifer Ball, kinesiologist and ergonomic program adviser. "Try to now book meetings with cushions of time where you can get up and move around, make a tea or coffee, or leave the house and do a short walk.”

3. Consider your screen use

With increased time on devices, our vision can really suffer. Here are a few ways you can limit time spent on devices:

Find ways to work away from a screen

  • Book a meeting as a phone call instead of a digital meeting.
  • Use a pen and paper when brainstorming for projects and creating to-do lists.
  • Utilize dictate or read-aloud functions found on computing devices. Word (free for students as part of Office 365) has both “dictate” and “speech” options to help when writing and proofreading. When reading online or pdf, consider looking for an add-in to your browser to support easy text-to-speech. Digital textbooks often have a read features as well. For more suggestions check out these assistive software options.

Exercise and relax your eyes

  • Prevent eyestrain with the 20-20-20 rule, which suggests working for 20 minutes on your screen, then taking a break for 20 seconds, viewing something 20 feet away
  • Look side to side, up and down, blink, cup hands over eyes as this will help relax them.

Personalize your display

  • Ensure font is the right size, zooming in or out so you don’t squint or strain.
  • Try to match the brightness of your screen to the light in your environment, i.e., increase brightness as the sun goes up, decrease as it goes down.
  • Clean your screen.
  • Reduce direct glare by using blinds, slightly tilting your screen or repositioning your workstation perpendicular to the window

For more ways to decrease screen time and keyboarding, check out this pdf document.

4. Take micro breaks and make them a priority

Micro breaks are brief breaks taken throughout your day to restore and refresh your energy and well-being. Physical movement during these breaks can help improve blood flow, decrease stiffness, improve memory, creativity, and motivation, among other things.

Tense or stressful disruptions from roommates, spouses, children and pets don’t count, as you want your break to be restorative, resting and rejuvenating for your body, including your brain and eyes.

Here are a few micro-break suggestions:

  • Change your location of working within your home. This might even just be for a meeting, or last only a few hours, but be mindful of where you end up and if you can check off some of the boxes mentioned above already. Did you move to a location with noise distractions? Invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones if you can.
  • Time your breaks; for every hour of work or studying, take five minutes for your micro break.
  • Stand up when you can, e.g., when on the phone or thinking about an assignment.

Need some help remembering to take your breaks? Check out this break timer tool, which includes stretches and different break timers to choose from (like the 20-20-20 exercise previously discussed).

Check out this pdf for movement ideas during your breaks.

5. Check in on your overall health

In addition to equipment, setup and breaks, your sleep, activity levels, and healthy, regular eating are also important indicators in supporting a healthy work and study environment. 

Sleep

  • Avoid screens two hours before bed. If you can’t, consider blue light filters or dark mode features for your devices.
  • Keep a sleep schedule — go to bed and get up roughly around the same time each day.
  • Avoid stimulants (coffee, black teas, energy drinks) after 3 p.m., if these tend to keep you up.

Eating and drinking

  • Have a water bottle at your work station.
  • Eat proper meals incorporating fresh foods.

Exercise

  • Try your best to stay active, and when increasing or getting back into activity, do it gradually.
  • If you weren’t active previously, start with low-impact activities like walking.

Setting and communicating boundaries to maintain a work and life balance are also important. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Resources below are listed if you need additional tools to support getting your optimal environment in place, or if you notice persistent aches and pains.

More resources

At a dinner table with a laptop? Watch this three-minute video for a consolidated guide to safely using your laptop from home.

UCalgary faculty or staff? Check out more resources offered through staff wellness, including furniture options for purchase, a 15-minute office self adjustment tool, and more. All pdfs and external videos on this page are also available to students.

EWI Works also has several additional resources and an illustrated checklist to set up your work station.

Experiencing potential symptoms like aches and pains?

It might be time to seek help or further assistance. For staff, go to Step 3 of the Ergonomic Program to determine next steps. Students can consult Step 3 as well, but reach out to your health-are provider or consult Student Wellness Services.  

For information on resources available on campus, check out the Campus Mental Health Strategy’s Get Support section of the website. The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential.