With the recent spike in lockdown restrictions most people have been advised to return to working from home. As a result, I’m sure the dust has been blown off many home set-ups that were installed during the peak of the pandemic in 2020. For most of us this ‘temporary’ setup consisted of a four-legged chair, kitchen bench and our laptops, or even worse…our beds! But is this really the best idea?
What did the home office change?
For a majority of the workforce, the COVID 19 health emergency introduced us to remote working for the first time. With the primary goal being to minimize physical contact and potential contamination of the workplace, it was a feat of technological brilliance that allowed most companies to continue to operate despite these restrictions. Yet with this in mind, the shift to a home set up has resulted in a considerable change to the environment in which we work. Among the advantages of this we see reduced time spent commuting to and from work, possible increases in productivity and motivation as well as a better work-life balance. However, not everything has changed for the better.
Common struggles such as a lack of separation between work and rest, no personal human interactions or communication problems are the obvious disadvantages that most of us would identify when talking about the harm of working from home. But what if I told you that working from home was also affecting your physical health?
Is your home environment detrimental to your health?
A study conducted in 2020 (Moretti et al., 2020), targeted the changes in working life that most of the population has experienced since the COVID-19 health emergency. In this it analyses the physical health issues related to remote working. The two major factors identified were the increased periods of inactivity and the adoption of poor posture due to lack of environmental support. It suggested that our home environment is inferior to the workplace, particularly due to the “absence of ergonomic office furniture which may impede the adoption of a healthy posture and promote the onset of musculoskeletal disorders.”
SO... WHAT DOES THIS MEAN IN ENGLISH?
In simple terms our use of a four-leg dining chair, kitchen bench and laptop are a poor substitute for an office desk with an adjustable chair and height adjustable monitor. In fact, this shows that it can lead to the development or worsening of physical disorders notably lower back and neck pain. It reported that 70.5% of participants had musculoskeletal pain with the lower back being responsible for 41.2% of complaints and the neck accounting for 23.5%.
Now given that lower back pain itself is quite complex it would be wrong to suggest that the poor remote working station is the only reason for this spike in pain. However, if we frame the entire working from home lifestyle and take the big picture into consideration, it is quite easy to see how these factors can play together. If we combine the reduced activity levels, with poor body positioning whilst sitting, poor psychosocial factors from time in isolation and the continued stress of repetitive work, it starts to paint quite an ugly picture for our overall spine health. Furthermore, it is well documented that working in the same position for an extended period significantly increases your risk of injury. Considering that the most frequent health problems presented within the working population are spine related, this finding is not too surprising.
What can you do to prevent this?
Whilst we are going to give you some tips below on how to adapt your workstation, to maintain good health and wellbeing throughout this period of remote working change should not stop there. It is essential that you continue to maintain boundaries with work. If possible, schedule time away from your desk. Try to maintain physical activity throughout this period aiming for at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day. Furthermore, maintaining social relationships during this period will also help alleviate stress and other psychosocial factors that may influence your pain.
If you can adjust your home set up it should include the following changes:
1. Adjust your screen height. The ideal screen sits in line with your shoulders so adjust your desktop to this height and if you have a laptop elevate it with a platform or some sturdy books. This will prevent excessive craning of the neck or other less ideal positions. Working with one screen is also preferable as it prevents you rotating your neck repeatedly to one side which can contribute to imbalance.
2. Lumbar support. If you do not have an office chair at home, a rolled up towel positioned at the small of the back can act as a substitute helping to assist you into an ideal position.
3. Keep your keyboard and mouse close to the edge of your desk. This will prevent excessive forward leaning.
4. Keep your feet flat on the floor. If you have a height adjustable chair this would be ideal. If not, using a footstool beneath the feet can offer the same support.
5. Keep moving. Try to avoid being stuck in the same position for long periods of time. Remember, your next position is your best position!
Moretti, A., Menna, F., Aulicino, M., Paoletta, M., Liguori, S. and Iolascon, G., 2020. Characterization of Home Working Population during COVID-19 Emergency: A Cross-Sectional Analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(17), p.6284.