Working from home may lower your risk of exposure to the virus, but it may raise your risk of a long-lasting back injury, warns top UK expert
By Nichola Adams, leading UK back-pain expert and ergonomist who specialises in advising companies on how to minimise the risk of a back injury in the workplace
Last week, I visited a number of international companies who, understandably concerned about the spread of Coronavirus in the UK, are preparing for their employees to work from home.
Some of the firms I met are in the process of organising for 50 per cent of their workforce to work from home as soon as possible. Then they plan to swap them over with the other 50 per cent, trying to ensure they maintain a good workforce at all times.
Others are encouraging their teams to alternate the days they come into the office with working from home, to reduce their exposure risk. The companies I visited are not alone in this strategy, as I recently read a front-page national newspaper report revealing that millions of us have been told to work from home already.
At the companies I met, I witnessed in their considerations a focus on practicalities such as IT and access to their in-house software systems. But fewer of their priorities seemed to be focused on workforce comfort levels.
So while it is of course key that we can still access the necessary data and programs to allow us to continue to work for home, does adopting such a strategy mean that employers are risking another challenge for the workforce - maintaining back and musculoskeletal health?
Unless we are educated on how to set up our 'Home Office' correctly, we are going to be facing the same risks at home, if not more acutely than we face in the office.
HSE DSE law enforces the importance of providing an ergonomic workstation assessment for the workplace as well as at the home if this is a frequent place of work. Yet companies seldom provide members of their workforce with education or advice for looking after their back health at home.
The types of risks associated with spending hours at your computer, if it's not set up correctly are:
- Frozen shoulder
- Lower and upper back pain
- Exacerbation of existing conditions, such as slipped or bulging discs
- Neck pain
These risks can be increased when working from home as we often don’t have a dedicated home office set up. Yet a few adaptations can greatly reduce your exposure to risk and prevent and reduce back pain and tension build-up.
In my work advising British companies on how they can minimise the risk of a back injury in the workplace, and as I carry out Work Station Assessments for a wide range of firms and their employees, I unfortunately often come across situations where proper guidelines have been misinterpreted to make matters worse. So, it is important to make the right adaptations.
If we need to work from home, many of us will have to use a dining room table or even just a sofa, so here are my Top Tips on how to convert your home into a ‘Home Office’ which will help discourage slouched postures and resulting muscle tension:
- Adjust your screen height: If you are using a laptop, ensure you can either dock it onto a larger screen that is then at eye height or alternatively, raise the laptop onto books or a laptop holder so that you aren’t slouching down to read the screen (and putting pressure on your lower and upper back). Then use a separate keyboard and mouse.
- Take your keyboard and mouse home: If you have a keyboard and mouse in the office, you can take these home to use with your laptop (with company permission!). Or you may need to get new ones if these aren’t compatible. There are many cheap options available on the market. Using a separate keyboard and mouse to the ones on your laptop will help you keep your arms relaxed by your side instead of stretching forward and up to a raised laptop (see above), causing tension build up in the shoulders, wrists and upper back.
- Prepare your chair: If you are using a dining chair instead of an adjustable office chair, at the very least ensure that you use a cushion or rolled-up towel. You can also purchase one of the inflatable lumbar support cushions available to support your lower-back curve. This will help keep you in a supported, upright posture. Ideally, you would have a chair that has lumbar support and adjustable height of seat and armrests, it is worth asking if your company will provide you with a budget for one if there are going to be extended periods of working from home. Beware the hugely confusing choice on the market though, so you can always ask for a checklist guide of what to look for.
- Keep moving: If your set-up at home causes you tension build-up in your back, try to move around a lot to keep the blood and oxygen moving around your body. If you have a laptop, you can take this over to a higher surface, such as a kitchen work surface or chest of drawers, and stand for a bit. Ideally. use the laptop riser, separate keyboard and mouse. Or you can work outside if you have a patio or garden space. A little fresh air does wonders for those brain cobwebs!
- Avoid sofa slouch: If you really only have your sofa to work from, try to mimic a good set-up if you are using your sofa. Build a supportive back by using lots of cushions (as our sofas are usually too deep, which will cause you to slouch), use a cushion under your laptop (both to protect you against the heat and raise it up), or try one of the adjustable laptop holders that are made for sofa or bed use. Stand up regularly to ease pressure build-up in your back.
- Protect your shoulders and wrists: When using the keyboard and mouse, keep these close to you so you don’t need to extend your arms forward when typing (which can quickly result in tension build up in your shoulders and neck). Try to keep your wrists relaxed and in a straight position, thereby reducing pressure build-up in your wrists. Relax those shoulders.
- Listen to your body: If you start to feel the tension building up or experience pins and needles, change your posture. Think through ways you can support your body more so your muscles can relax. Employers can offer Skype or FaceTime sessions to help home workers reduce their risk. Everyone is an individual and ergonomists like me can also conduct expert assessments remotely. They offer bespoke solutions for every different back issue or ‘Home Office’ set-up, whether you’re perched on a kitchen stool or spreading papers over your dining-room table.
If you are in the office and want to reduce your exposure to Coronavirus, it is worth re-evaluating your hot-desking strategy and try to assign desks as far as possible.
Hot-desking exposes us to the risk of others' germs on the whole of their workstation. It is known that a keyboard often harbours more germs than a toilet seat. It's also worth taking a moment to think about some other areas we frequently touch, such as:
- The mouse
- Our desk surface
- The chair armrests
- The chair seat
- Chair adjustment levers
Everything will need sterilising. So, either become very proficient at wiping everything down before and after you use it, which probably should be done anyway, or assign desks as far as possible.
The Coronavirus does highlight the health dangers of hot-desking, not only from the perspective of what we ergonomists know as a back-pain risk but also in view of the bacterial risk as well. Maybe this is why illnesses can spread so easily in offices where a hot-desking policy is in place.
EXERCISE AT HOME
When working from home, it is still essential that we continue to exercise. Without our daily commute, we will be missing natural excuses to walk and many of us may already be wanting to avoid going into the gym. It will be relatively easy for those who run to still go out, but for those who don’t, there are also many YouTube exercise videos available. You can check out exercise routine apps, too. Aim for at least 30 minutes’ exercise a day.
Other useful tips
- Use Skype or FaceTime to keep interaction between your colleagues and combat loneliness.
- Tools like Zoom are handy for video conferencing.
- Evernote is helpful for managing your workload.
- If you are easily distracted by notifications on your mobile, or by the million other things you think need doing in the house, try setting 40-minute time slots to achieve tasks.
- Use back-up services such as Carbonite, OneDrive or iCloud.
- Don’t forget to take breaks from work, which are harder to remember when you’re working from home.
To receive a free Inspired Ergonomics leaflet on how to work from home safely, email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Combining the Greek words ‘ergon’ (meaning ‘work’) and ‘nomoi’ (meaning ‘natural laws’), ergonomics is the science of making products and tasks comfortable and efficient for human use.
- Nichola Adams, MSc Health Ergonomics, Tech CIEHF (Technical Member of The Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors), Reg Member ACPOHE (The Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Occupational Health and Ergonomics), is one of the UK’s leading back-pain experts and the Founder of Inspired Ergonomics (inspiredergonomics.com)
Pictures: Giles Barnard