informative

Working from home? Here are three steps you can take to reduce pain caused from desk-based work

Has your ‘short-term’ work from home arrangement been made permanent? Do you experience pain from sitting at your desk? But at the same time, do you find it hard to break away from the computer regularly? I don’t – here is why….

In the UK, working from home has become more of a permanent arrangement for many organisations. This has been more critical in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is an attractive solution to many issues face by employers and employees alike. Working from home allows organisations to reduce their overheads significantly. For employees, working from home can significantly reduce time and money spent commuting. It can enable friends and families to spend more time together, and although it depends who you live with, it could arguably improve working conditions for many. It also allows more flexibility in work schedules and locations.

However, it’s not without drawbacks. I don’t know about you, but if I sit for long periods of time I really notice that the muscles in my shoulders and neck become more achy. I regularly experience upper back pain – particularly if I am stressed. For many, working from home reduces social interactions. One of the main issues with this lack of ‘tea breaks’ and ‘banter’ is that we can easily sit for longer periods. These ‘ distractions’ might interrupt our work flow or productivity, but they also break up periods of inactivity. If you don’t live in a busy household, or your work schedule remain relatively uninterrupted by those you live with, you might be missing out on important cues to move over the course of the day.

… movement is a clear winner in pain and stress management strategies. However, this can be hard to do from our at home office. But it’s not impossible…

Almost inevitably, we still experience work-related stress when working from home. The fact that there is less physical separation between work and play can also make it harder to switch off. For those of us with a persistent pain issue, stress can make our symptoms more noticeable and harder to manage. It is important to find new ways to help manage our stress. Of course, movement is a clear winner in pain and stress management strategies. However, this can be hard to do from our at home office. But it’s not impossible…

We often don’t consider working hours to be appropriate times to embrace ‘intentional’ movement or exercise. Let’s see… if your workplace offered you free exercise classes would you take them up on it? Mine does, and I haven’t… how ironic is that?! However, working from home gives us the PERFECT opportunity to take up new habits. I’m not talking about running 5km in your lunchbreak, or even a HIIT workout in the living room at 5pm (although I’m fully rooting for you if you’re up for those challenges). I’m talking about using the space around us in a way that we wouldn’t dream of in a shared office space with our colleagues. Nothing too weird, of course… but perhaps not what your average office might advocate.

The best posture is the next posture.

Peter Opsvik

Let me elaborate. Since lock-down, I’ve been working full-time (from home) for the Data Team at the Stroke Association. It’s a superb organisation, doing great work to support stroke survivors in the UK. It’s a very charity close to my heart – a number of my family have experienced and even lost their lives due to having a stroke. But one issue we have, like many other desk-based workplaces, is that we have to work on computers… at home. A common discussion point in my team has been that at one point or another we have each got carried away with our work and lost track of time. Maybe we’ve missed a lunch break, or worked beyond our usual work end time. I’ve been pondering a solution for a while now. The solution crept up on me… and it’s quite surprising!

I spend the first three months working from my kitchen bar table, yoga mat and sofa. Not ideal. Until recently, my partner and I were living in a tiny one bedroom loft apartment without room for a desk and chair. I was forced to alternate from standing up as I worked to slumping on my sofa (bolstering myself with cushions) to sitting cross-legged on the floor of our teeny open plan living room/kitchen. This was in the height of lock-down when Boris said we could only leave our homes for 30 minutes a day. Fun times.

At first, it was frustrating. I couldn’t sit or stand for more than 15-20 minutes before shifting position. If I was sitting on the yoga mat and wasn’t experiencing a ‘dead leg’, I’d inevitably wind-up having a stretch. In fact, the yoga mat literally was calling my name once or twice an hour… I started to teach myself how to do handstands. Now, can you tell me how many office work spaces have a dedicated handstand area?

I’ve since realised that this is a possible antidote to many issues we can face when working at a desk for indefinite lengths of time. Not just handstands. Not even yoga mats. But I found that setting up my workspace with multiple sitting and standing options which I was only able to tolerate for short periods of time forced me to move every 15-20 minutes. I noticed that I was less prone to experiencing my usual upper back pain issue. If it did start to bother me, I was in a much better position (standing or sitting) to stretch it out. This was particularly cathartic in times of stress – the first few months of any new job is stressful.

Now, that might sound like torture. In some ways, it was. But, almost four months on, I actually enjoying working like this in my new home. We have an office with a desk and chair… but I find myself standing in the kitchen or sitting on the living room floor. I even kick up into a handstand every once in a while… although I’m clearly in need of more practice.

The funniest thing about the whole experience is that my employer takes great care to put in place occupational health measures to improve working conditions. For our ‘at home’ work place we have been offered an office chair and desk. At first, I was keen to take up the offer. This would mean that both my partner and I could work at desks all day long at the same time. But on reflection, I am at least questioning whether this way of working is something we should continue to consider optimal.

If you are experiencing difficulty getting through the working day at your desk and seeking a simple solution, here are three steps you can take (in order) at any given moment in your working day:

  • STEP ONE: Get comfy. Start by thinking about how and where you would sit, stand or lie if you weren’t working at that moment.
  • STEP TWO: Get organised. Look at surfaces in your house at various heights and bring them to the place where you are located. For example: if you’re working from the floor, do you have a coffee table or a stool you can use as a work surface. If you can’t find something you can build a work station. For example: using cushions, blankets and a tea tray. I have one of these laptop desks and it’s great!
  • STEP THREE: Get moving. You should feel a need to move as your comfort levels change from minute to minute, and hour to hour. If you’ve been sitting, try standing. If you’ve been standing, try sitting or lying down. There is no ‘single correct posture’ for working. Even if it’s simply to adjust your cushions or legs, to stretch your arms or body – just move.

TOP TIP: Try to set up a couple of different workstations to suit your needs throughout the day (i.e.: one for sitting, one for standing, one for lying). This reduces the need to think about movement too much – you won’t need to ‘waste’ time looking for a place to work that’s comfortable if you’ve already set up your space with a range of options.

So try it out. You don’t have to ditch the desk entirely. Just consider broadening your options. You might be surprised at the difference just one hour at a new work surface can make!

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