It is no secret the global health pandemic has had several impacts on professional environments, and perhaps the most challenging change for some has been the shift to working from home. While setting the alarm clock forward a few minutes and working in your pajamas may seem like a dream for employees, the home office can quickly lead to an increased sedentary lifestyle.
It may not seem like sitting in front of a computer would take a toll on one’s body, but the health impacts of desk work can be more severe than we might imagine. With many employees setting up shop at home, the average nine-to-five workday sees little movement between getting up to go to the bathroom and refilling the coffee mug.
Tia McLean, a resident physiotherapist at MVMT Physio & Chiro, reports that the clinic has seen an increase in clients reporting shoulder and back injuries since the pandemic swept the area back in March.
“Any type of shoulder injury is common with those forward reaching postures, like reaching in front of you for a keyboard, and sustained posture often seen in sedentary desk work,” she shares. In addition to stiff and sore shoulders, McLean notes that desk work is a common culprit for producing poor posture, leading to increased headaches, lower back pain, and overall discomfort. Fortunately, all is not lost for home office workers and preventing back pain starts in the computer chair.
“I recommend you don’t keep any posture more than 30 minutes. There’s a saying I like to tell my patients, which is ‘your best posture is your next posture,’” McLean says. “Every 30 minutes get up, even if it’s a two-minute lap of the office or quick stretches in your chair. Try to do some posture correcting exercises and shoulder blade squeezes.”
While anyone stationed in front of a computer is prone to kinks in their neck here and there, McLean notes age is a significant factor in back pain and injuries related to computer-based work. “One of the cruel jokes nature plays on us as we age is our muscles change composition. The movement of sitting to standing takes quite a bit of power and as you age, you lose some of the power in your muscles and movements. If you are an older individual spending a lot of time sitting, that’s going to get worse. If you have no power muscles, that’s when people are more likely to experience a fall at home.”
Although McLean shares concern over the risks associated with desk work, it is noted that prevention is key and there are several ways workers at home can adjust their workspace to promote physical health. “Make sure your keyboard is not too far in front of you and your computer is at eye level. Take a look at where you are sitting on your chair. Are you slouching? If your back is the shape of a ‘C’, that’s probably not good for you.”
Preventing back pain at home does not need to be a complicated endeavor. Prevention can be as simple as finding everyday items around the house to adapt to your needs. A simple but effective measure is rolling up a towel and placing it in the small of your back as you sit in front of the computer. McLean points out, “You don’t always need to spend money on tools to remedy back pain. Get creative!”
For those suffering from neck and back pain, seeking relief sooner rather than later goes a long way. When pain arrives, it is important to keep moving, be proactive, and treat your back pain before it has time to fester.
“Don’t take back pain lying down. If you have back pain, laying down is the worst thing you can do. Walking is one of the best exercises for your back,” McLean says. “Be active; try moving around. Other than that, if you are in pain, don’t just assume it will get better or you have to live that way. You don’t need to live in pain.”
Stiff shoulders aren’t the only health issue computer-based workers have to keep an eye on. Between computers and mobile phones, workers often find themselves glued to a screen one way or another. With increased screen exposure comes increased risks for eye health. As explained by Dr. Troy Brady, president of the Alberta Association of Optometrists, extended periods of screen time can lead to symptoms associated with computer vision syndrome, which can include eyestrain, headaches, blurred vision, dry eyes, and neck and shoulder pain. So how can workers protect their eyes in the digital working environment? Maintaining good eye health starts with a visit to the optometrist.
“One of the best ways to avoid eye strain is to have a comprehensive eye examination and discuss lens options with your local optometrist. Your optometrist will be able to determine if you might benefit from corrective lens designs that would reduce the amount of work that the muscles of your eyes have to do in order to keep your screen clear,” Dr. Brady shares.
As it turns out, your trusty reading glasses may not make the cut when it comes to working in front of a screen all day. “Eyeglasses or contact lenses prescribed for general use may not be adequate for computer work. Lenses prescribed to meet the unique visual demands of computer use may be needed. Special lens designs, lens powers, or lens tints or coatings may help to maximize your vision and comfort.”
In addition to checking in with your optometrist and updating your lenses, Dr. Brady notes there are steps those working from the computer can take to reduce eye strain. “A general guideline is to take a 20 second break every 20 minutes where you look at least 20 feet or farther in the distance. It is also quite helpful to try and remember to blink frequently when looking at a computer screen for extended periods of time.”
For glasses wearers, the addition of a face mask to the work uniform can be a challenge. Discomfort and fogged up lenses are a regular battle for glasses wearers, but as explained by Dr. Brady, there are options available for those in need.
“There are some lenses that have anti-fog coatings that help reducing fogging that can happen with wearing masks. There are also some products that can be applied to lens surfaces that reduce the amount that eyeglass lenses will fog,” he shares. “These products can be purchased at optometric offices and applied to any type of lens to reduce fogging. Another advantage to these products is that when they are applied to a lens, the lens will be less likely to fog when entering a warm environment from a cold environment.”
Keeping up with your physical wellbeing during a global health pandemic isn’t always easy, but small steps go a long way in preventing injuries and long-term pain. Pin up a list of neck stretches by the computer, roll your shoulders, close your eyes once in awhile, get up and move between virtual meetings, and take your eyes periodically off the screen. Staying on top of work throughout the day is important, but ensuring your body is looked after takes precedence.