While working from home has plenty of benefits – avoiding noisy coworkers, having direct access to your fridge at all times, enjoying the easiest ‘commute’ ever – after more than three months away from the office due to lockdown, many people are discovering a serious downside: back pain.
Unless you’re lucky enough to have a proper desk, computer monitor and adjustable chair, chances are you’ve had to create a makeshift workstation at your dining table, on the sofa, or maybe even in bed.
According to research from Bupa UK, 63% of home workers are suffering pain as a result of their home working environment, with the most commonly reported problem (30%) being back ache.
“When social distancing measures were introduced, many workers were thrust into working from home to keep them safe, with little time to prepare their workspaces,” says Damian McClelland, clinical director for musculoskeletal services at Bupa UK Insurance. “So it’s concerning, but perhaps not surprising, to see that so many are now struggling with their musculoskeletal health.”
So what can you do if you’ve been experiencing back ache recently? “People can only do the best that they can and accept it’s not going to be a perfect working environment,” says Marc Holl, head of physiotherapy and clinical development lead at Nuffield Health.
But it’s important to address pain or discomfort early on to prevent more serious problems down the line. That means making adjustments to your workspace and your lifestyle to help prevent and alleviate the problem.
7 ways to avoid back pain when working at home
Here are seven ways to help avoid back pain while working from home…
1. Sit don’t slouch
“You want to try to mimic a typical office working environment,” says Holl. “Working on the sofa or bed wouldn’t be highly recommended because you are going to naturally slouch into what I call ‘Netflix positions’.”
Even if you don’t have a dedicated office, Holl recommends sitting up at a table or breakfast bar. “Then you can at least try to sit in a healthy, good sitting posture,” he says. “However, I’m not a massive fan of telling people they must sit up straight and make sure that everything is at right angles. Instead, I recommend sitting in your natural position and going with your natural posture.”
2. Use a backrest
“Try to avoid those breakfast stools or chairs without a backrest,” Holl says. “You want to have a backrest, whether it’s an ergonomically designed one or just a dining room chair.”
While there are many products on the market promising to provide lumbar support, you don’t have to spend a lot of money on a fancy cushion – you can make your own, Holl says. “Grab a towel from the airing cupboard, wrap it up using a hair band, an elastic band or your dressing gown belt, to mimic a ‘lumbar roll’.
“Pop that lumbar roll between your back and the dining room chair to mimic your normal sitting posture with an office chair.”
3. Use a keyboard and mouse
“I’d make the recommendation to buy a fairly cheap keyboard and a cheap mouse online,” Holl says. “Then when the parcel arrives, turn the box upside down, put the laptop on the box to try to increase the height of the laptop, then use your new mouse and keyboard as your peripherals for the laptop.”
Why? Because ideally the top of your laptop screen needs to be level with your eyebrows, so use books, boxes or anything else from around the house to boost the height.
“However, if you don’t have peripherals like a USB keyboard and mouse, it’s best to keep your laptop on a flat surface,” says Holl. “You don’t want your arms floating up in the air on the keyboard, as this can cause strain in your wrists.”
4. Don’t look down
If working from home is literally a pain in the neck, you might benefit from installing a computer monitor to use alongside your laptop.
“Prolonged looking down could contribute to neck strain and neck pain,” says Holl. “Keeping it in a natural forward-looking position can minimise risk of developing neck strain.”
5. Don’t stay sitting for too long
“Movement is key,” says Holl. “All physios will agree that every 20 minutes you need to get up and move around, even if you’re still on a conference, Skype or telephone call.”
Try setting a timer on your phone and leaving it on the other side of the room so that you have to get up to turn it off.
6. Stretch regularly
“Stretching is also important,” says Holl. “Put your hands on your glutes and stretch backwards to look up to the ceiling, just to give a stretch in the opposite direction to where they’ve probably been sitting.”
He also recommends regular ‘deskercise’ movements to counteract sitting postures, things like bringing your knees into your chest, stretching your arms up to the ceiling then behind your back, and crossing one ankle over the opposite knee to stretch your glutes.
7. Stay hydrated
Drinking enough water has dual health benefits, says Holl: “Not only does it hydrate the body and the eyes, it also encourages you to take regular breaks to get up and go to the toilet, which you might not do otherwise.”