Avoiding back pain while working from home

13 Mar 2020 By Nichola Adams

With the coronavirus crisis intensifying, many staff will be working remotely for extended periods, meaning they must set up safe and comfortable home offices, says Nichola Adams

Coronavirus continues to hugely impact our lives, including how and where we work. More and more UK employers are now managing their workforces by asking them to work from home. Twitter, for example, announced yesterday (12 March) that all of its employees globally must "work from home to support worldwide efforts to stop the spread" of coronavirus. It followed in the footsteps of Google, which first asked all its North American employees to begin working from home on Tuesday 10 March, then quickly extending this to the rest of its global workforce.

This sets many people the new challenge of creating a home office, converting a room in their home – maybe their lounge, kitchen or dining room – to become their substitute work space.

The temptation is to choose unsuitable furniture and makeshift working arrangements to carry on your day job. But HR and health and safety professionals should encourage employees to try to mimic a desk setup, even if it’s their dining table.

Here are some top tips, which will help you and your employees avoid slouching and suffering muscle tension:

Get your screen height right

Using a laptop? Make sure you can either dock it onto a larger screen that’s at eye height, or raise it onto books or a laptop holder so you aren’t slouching to read the screen, putting pressure on your lower and upper back. Then use a separate keyboard and mouse.

Take your mouse to the house

Ensure your IT department grants permission for staff to bring home their own keyboard and mouse. (Remember, if your office encourages hot desking, a keyboard can harbour more germs than a toilet seat, so encourage staff to give it an antibacterial wipe first.) Using a separate keyboard and mouse to the ones on your laptop helps keep your arms relaxed by your side instead of stretching forward and up to a raised laptop. This builds tension in the shoulders, wrists and upper back. 

Prepare your chair

Ideally, you’ll be mostly using a chair, so if it’s a dining chair, rather than an office one, use a cushion or rolled-up towel for extra support. Better still, buy an inflatable lumbar support cushion for your lower back curve.

Blow away brain cobwebs

Keep blood and oxygen moving around your body to avoid tension building up. Take your laptop to a higher surface, like a kitchen worktop or tall chest of drawers, and stand for a while.

Don’t sofa-slouch

If you only have your sofa to work from, mimic a good setup. Build a supportive back using cushions (deep sofas cause slouching). Put a cushion under your laptop to protect yourself against heat and raise it up. Try an adjustable laptop holder that’s made for sofa or bed use. 

Protect your shoulders and wrists

When using a keyboard and mouse, keep them close to you so you don't have to extend your arms forward when typing (shoulder and neck tension can quickly follow). Keep wrists relaxed and straight, reducing pressure buildup.

Listen to your body

If you feel tense or experience pins and needles, it’s usually your body telling you to change posture (or stop slouching). Find ways to support your body so muscles relax.

Remember to exercise

Working from home without commuting means exercise becomes especially important. If coronavirus worries mean you’re avoiding the gym, check YouTube exercise videos and exercise routine apps. Aim for at least 30 minutes a day.

Take regular breaks

These are harder to remember working at home, so set automatic reminders on your phone.

Take inspiration from the past

Bean bags are surprisingly good for adapting around your body. You can usually find a way to sit with your arms and back supported, allowing you to use your laptop in a more ergonomic way. Arrange the bag first so your lower-back curve, shoulders, neck and arms are supported. And if noisy kids or pets disturb your peace, just carry the bean bag to another room. 

Nichola Adams is a specialist in back pain disorders in the workplace and the founder of Inspired Ergonomics

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