Despite a gradual return to the office, there’s no denying that most people are set to be working from home more than they did pre-pandemic.
But it seems our at-home set-ups have been wreaking havoc on our physical health – with 64% of 18 to 29 year olds now saying they have back problems after WFH, according to Mind Your Back.
Whether we are doing one or five days a week at home, it’s vital we optimise our posture – to stop issues popping up further down the line.
‘With so many people working from home, there is a number of increasing lower back and shoulder complaints. This can be attributed to having a less-than-ideal workspace setup,’ says Elisabeth Clare, managing director of MBST – a business servicing physiotherapy clinics around the UK.
‘The human body isn’t meant to be static, and by remaining in one position for a long period of time – be that sitting or standing – working from home will likely cause stress on our joints and muscle structures.
‘A traditional workday might see someone showering, before going to the office where they might move around to talk to other people, go to the loo and make tea – before nipping to the shops on the way home. Without any of this almost unnoticeable activity taking place, we drastically limit our movement.
‘As a result, we have seen a high incidence of spasms in muscles in the lower back as well as more stress on the structures we load when sitting, such as the hamstring tendons.’
If you’re finding yourself hunched over your laptop and sagging in your seat, you’re most definitely not alone.
However, it is important to get posture in check before things escalate.
Experts have shared how exactly we can do this from now on.
Fix your desk
Your desk is a good place to start.
Physiotherapist Phil Evans from Urban Body says: ‘Ensure your computer is set at the correct height when you’re sitting, with the middle of the screen being at eye level.
‘Your desk and chair should be adjusted to the height that allows you to reach the work surface easily when your arms are at your sides with the elbows bent to 90 degrees.’
Karen Gambardella, a physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics, adds that your keyboard and screen should be at arm’s length.
‘If the screen it too high or too low, you could find yourself adopting a different posture which could lead to aches and pains developing,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘If using a laptop as your computer screen, combining this with an external keyboard and mouse will allow you to elevate your screen to the correct height using a laptop riser and could improve your overall desk set-up.’
Review your office chair
‘Dining room chairs, beanbags, sofas or beds are not practical for working from home. If you are working from home regularly, it may also benefit you to look into the options to improve your desk set-up,’ adds Karen.
An office chair should have a full back that extends from the seat of the chair to your shoulders or above, to support your lower back and prevent slouching.
When working, it’s also important to keep your feet flat on the floor and slightly ahead of your knees, which should be bent at a 90 – 120-degree angle.
Phil says: ‘If you’re looking downwards your spine becomes more and more rounded, stretching the muscles and putting more force on the joints and pressure on the discs.
‘Tension in these sensitive areas is likely to cause pain in the neck and shoulders – so try to keep your shoulders relaxed, upper arms to fall normally at your sides and elbows close to your body.’
Karen also stresses that if a desk chair is not an option, lumbar support pillows can be used to reinforce your lower back when sitting.
‘Ideally when sitting at your desk, your feet should be on the floor and the arm rests of the chair should sit slightly under the elbows to allow the shoulders to relax, if this is not the case, the height of the arm rests may need to be adjusted,’ she adds.
Talk a walk every 20 minutes
Because we are pretty relaxed in our home environment (typically with less distractions than an office), we can settle in for long periods of work at a time – often with no break.
‘We move around less while working from home – this puts strain on the body. It is important to walk periodically and change your posture as often as you can,’ says Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks.
Simply put, humans aren’t supposed to sit down for long stints.
Phil says: ‘Sitting multiplies the pressure on your spine. This often causes pain and tension in the neck and shoulder region because many of us slouch, meaning the muscles in your spine that are designed to protect you (the core muscle group) simply don’t work.
‘So if you have to sit for long periods, get up for a quick walk and stretch every 20 minutes to wake up your body.’
Of course, between deadlines and Zoom meetings you might not be able to take long chunks out of your day to do this – but moving for just 20-30 seconds will help.
Now remote working has become the norm, you might find you’re spending more time on the phone – but this can also be problematic.
Karen says: ‘Using a mobile or landline phone without a headset for long periods is likely to strain the muscles in your neck.
‘To reduce the risk of this developing, switching to a hands-free phone line such as a headset or earphones may allow you to improve your posture when participating in work calls and negate the need to type or write with the phone positioned between your ear and shoulder.’
Strengthen your back
The strength in your lower back dictates the positions that your neck and shoulders will take.
So if you can get into the routine of doing simple stretches and exercises – which target your lower back muscles – your posture will benefit.
There are a number of ways this can be achieved, such as through yoga and pilates.
Three pilates moves to target back pain, from Hollie Grant – founder of Pilates PT:
‘To help reduce the effects of WFH, we need to focus on strengthening the upper back extensors (the muscles that help us sit up straight), stretching out the neck extensors (the muscles that pull our heads back to look at our screens), and keep our abdominals active,’ says Hollie.
‘Here are my top 3 exercises for each of these.’
1) Spine lengtheners – which will target the upper back extensors an help you sit straighter.
- Lie flat on your front, with your feet hip width apart, your hands under your forehead like a pillow and your pubic bone gently pressing into the floor – to help keep your lower back neutral.
- Breathe in and activate your abdominals and on the exhale gently lift your hands, head and chest away from the floor until your body is in a long low line. Inhale to stay here and exhale to slowly come down with control. You are not aiming to come up to a height that resembles a backbend, and your legs should not lift off the floor – you are aiming for a long, straight line with your spine.
2) Postural chain stretch – this will loosen muscles in the back of the body.
- Start standing with feet hip distance apart and soft knees. Roll down from the crown of your head, one vertebra at a time, until your hands are as close to the ground as possible without bending your knees further (they should still be soft).
- Once here, interlace your fingers and put your hands on the back of the head. Straighten your legs, and use the weight of your arms to gently pull your head towards your knees. You should feel an intense stretch up the back of the body, particularly where you are tightest.
3) Abdominal prep – will help keep core active without putting too much pressure on.
- Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor and fingers to temples, elbows wide. Make sure you have a neutral pelvis (e.g. do not dig your lower back into the floor). Inhale to prepare and as you exhale lift the head and shoulders up away from the floor by sliding your ribs down towards your hips.
- Inhale to hold it here, and on the exhale slowly lower yourself back to start position. As you do this keep your pelvis neutral, move slowly and try not to dig your chin into your chest.