Back to work in 2021

A PhD can feel like backbreaking work sometimes, but it shouldn’t leave you in agony. How can you avoid aches and pains when working from the (dis)comfort of your home? Sky Herington shares some tips on quick and easy ways to improve your home-working set-up without spending a fortune.

I’ve experimented with many different set-ups for working on my PhD over the past couple of years, especially since being locked down for the third (fourth? Are we still counting?) time and having to work exclusively from home. I’ve tried typing while stretched out on the sofa with my legs hanging over the armrest. Too soft. I’ve tried writing at the kitchen table sitting in a wooden dining chair. Too hard. I’ve tried working in bed. Too… soporific. When I found myself contemplating whether I could safely finish my footnotes in a bubble bath, I realised I had to find a way to create a decent home working space.

By all accounts the best solution to good a home working set-up is an ergonomic office chair. Luxury models made by the likes of Herman Miller promise cutting-edge technology, human-centred design and, crucially, absolute comfort. Unfortunately, however, the price tags left me feeling decidedly uncomfortable. While I didn’t mind splashing out a bit– I’d be using it for eight hours a day after all – the four-figure sums didn’t seem very student-friendly (or anyone-friendly for that matter). Of course, in an ideal world, we’d all have free access to proper supportive working equipment instead of having to trawl the internet for makeshift solutions. But, while we’re waiting for the revolution, here are a few tips for some minor changes to improve posture and comfort while working from home:

  • Try second-hand refurbishing companies. If you do want to invest in an ergonomic chair, it’s worth looking into second-hand furniture websites which sell refurbished versions of some of the top-of-the-range products at a fraction of the original price. Not only can you bag a bargain, but many retailers use recycled materials, offering a product that is eco-friendly too.
  • Invest in the little things. While I’m suspicious of the ever-growing sales of useless products we definitely don’t need (cf. the egg cuber), there are some less expensive options for making minor changes to your work set-up that might actually be worth the investment. I have friends who swear by anti-blue light glasses which help reduce eye fatigue when staring at a screen all day. Some items can be recreated using everyday objects: a pile of books works perfectly well as a laptop stand.
  • Height makes all the difference. Apparently, this is a Big Thing in the world of ergonomics. The difference in height between your eyeline and the top of the computer screen can drastically affect the posture your body adopts. They should be level; arms, when bent, should be at a 90-degree angle with the desk; hips should be positioned slightly higher than your knees.
  • Keep mobile if possible. This might take the form of regular breaks for movement or incorporating a more active use of the body in your office set-up depending on what mobility is available to you. A makeshift sit-stand desk can be constructed using other pieces of furniture to allow you to spend some of the working day standing if possible. If you’re feeling ambitious, sitting on a yoga ball keeps your core engaged while you work (*abs of steel not guaranteed).
  • Talk to someone about your needs. Make sure you’re receiving any support you’re entitled to that will facilitate home working. Speak to your supervisor(s) or postgraduate reps if you’re not getting what you need – there may be funding or specific equipment available to help you set up a home space that works for you and your body.

Wishing you all a safe and ergonomic 2021 ahead, Happy New Year!

What are your top tips for staying healthy and comfortable when working from home? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.

by Sky

Sky Herington is a third-year PhD candidate in French and Theatre and Performance Studies. Her research looks at embodiment and power in post-colonial Francophone Congolese theatre. She has taught on undergraduate culture and language modules in the School of Modern Languages and Culture. Twitter: @SkyHerington

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