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Employees lament the ergonomic office furniture they left behind

Working from home’s getting to be a real pain

Maggie Lopes left behind a scientifically engineered Herman Miller Aeron chair for something she got for free from a random woman in a Somerville moms’ group. “My neck and back are killing me,” she said.
Maggie Lopes left behind a scientifically engineered Herman Miller Aeron chair for something she got for free from a random woman in a Somerville moms’ group. “My neck and back are killing me,” she said.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Two weeks into the work-from-home mandate, Larry Azer finally snapped. “Forget this,” he said.

Azer is the director of finance and operations of the King Philip Regional School District in Norfolk. And “this” is the hard kitchen chair torturing him as he hunched over his laptop at a folding table.

“I was destroyed,” he said. “Pain everywhere. Back, legs, bottom side, or whatever is printable.”

Many people working from home are yearning for the chairs they left behind, but Azer took action. “I told the facilities manager I had to go in and get a few things,” he said.

On a chilly March morning he got in his Nissan Rogue, drove an hour and 20 minutes from his South Yarmouth home, unlocked the rear entrance to the two-story middle school, walked through a dark hallway to his office, grabbed the chair, rolled it out, and took it home.

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“I used to take that chair for granted,” he said in disbelief.

Who knew we’d miss not just our colleagues and the lunch place downstairs, but our furniture, too? But over the years, with the goal of increasing well-being and productivity and reducing workers’ comp claims, companies have invested big in ergonomic furnishings—$500,000 on average per fiscal year for global corporations, according to an estimate by the ergonomic consulting firm E3 Consulting.

They have bought high-tech chairs that align the spine and maximize air flow, motorized sit-to-stand desks, anti-fatigue mats with patented terrain features, contoured keyboards, wrist-friendly mouses.

Then, in March, everyone went home. To folding chairs scavenged from the attic. To low coffee tables. To laptops unwittingly positioned to reflect sun glare.

And for a brief while it was OK, or OK enough. It was only temporary. Then this shelter-in-place thing stretched on. And on again. And now? On week gazillion?

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“People are becoming more and more uncomfortable,” said Karen Jacobs, an occupational therapist and professor at Boston University.

People sitting too far from their computers are jutting their heads forward and doubling the weight load on their necks. People staring down at laptops for eight hours a day are doing the same.

“Our heads weigh about 10 to 12 pounds,” Jacobs said. “Our neck muscles are really hurting.”

Workers who sit for hours without standing or moving are shortening hamstrings and hip flexors, courting varicose veins, weakening leg muscles.

Discomfort in one part of the body inevitably leads to discomfort in another part. “Everything is connected,” Jacobs said.

When will it end? Who knows. What at first seemed like a few weeks away from the office is turning into a much longer gig, as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, among others, extend work-from-home polices into the fall or even 2021.

Already the American Occupational Therapy Association’s members have gotten so many calls that the organization created a quarantine-focused home-office ergonomic tip sheet. (Among other things: Use a foot rest if your feet don’t comfortably rest on the floor; towel rolls work well for lumbar support; your eyes should be level with the top of the monitor.)

The physical agony of the American white collar worker is unfolding in real life, and also on video screens, with experts like Adam Dean, a senior ergonomic consultant with E3 Consulting.

Before the pandemic, his California-based firm worked with corporate clients mainly in their offices. Now he and colleagues Zoom into clients’ employees’ homes.

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Asked about the ergonomic abominations he’s witnessed, Dean replied instantly: “You name it,” he said.

He named two: one client has been working on his bed, lying on his back, with his computer on his stomach, otter style, for eight hours a day. “He was experiencing a lot of neck discomfort,” Dean said.

Another, he said, was working from her toddler’s tiny chair and desk. “There was a lot of low-back discomfort.”

Many if not most people aren’t getting outside help, unless you count Advil.

Maggie Lopes does. She is struggling with a “disastrous” setup that has her doing her job as a Harvard administrator from a corner of her dining room table (also her preschoolers’ arts-and-crafts area).

Lopes left behind a scientifically engineered Herman Miller Aeron chair for a chair she got for free from a random woman in a Somerville moms’ group. “My neck and back are killing me,” she said.

She recently busted out a heating pad she hasn’t used since pregnancy, and begged her husband for a massage. “And not a loving one,” she said. “I told him to be very aggressive.”

In her 565-square-foot condo in Brookline, Karen Shiffman is employing a different strategy. Stay ahead of the pain. When one chair starts to become uncomfortable she moves to another chair, equally uncomfortable but at least in a different way.

“I’m determined not to work on my bed,” said Shiffman, assistant program director at WBUR.

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And yet, as achy and knotted and stiff as people are, as much as their wrists hurt, Shiffman and others know they’re actually lucky. They’ve still got jobs.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.